Friday, April 03, 2020

What is emergence? What does “emergent” mean?

The word “emerging” is often used colloquially to mean something like “giving rise to” or “becoming apparent”. But emerging, emergent, and emergence are also technical terms. So, today I want to explain what physicists mean by emergence, which is also the way that the expression is often, but not always, used by philosophers.



Emergent broadly speaking refers to novel types of behavior in systems with many interacting constituents. A good example is the “La ola” wave that you sometimes see in the audience of sporting events. It’s not something you can do alone. It only becomes possible because of the interaction between people and their neighbors.

Indeed, something very similar happens in many condensed-matter systems, where the interactions between atomic constituents gives rise to certain types of collective behavior. These can be waves, like with la ola. The simplest example of this are sound waves. Sound waves are really just a simple, collective description for atoms in a gas that move periodically and so create a propagating mode.

But we know that in quantum mechanics waves are also particles and the other way round. This is why in condensed matter systems one can have “quasi-particles” which behave like particles – with quantum properties and wave-behavior and all that – but are actually a collective that moves together. Quasi-particles are emergent from the interactions of many fundamental particles.

And this is really the most relevant property of emergence. Something is emergent if it comes about from the collective behavior of many constituents of a system, be that people or atoms. If something is emergent, it does not even make sense to speak about it for individual elements of the system.

There are a lot of quantities in physics which are emergent. Think for example of conductivity. Conductivity is the ability of a system to transport currents from one end to another. It’s a property of materials. But it does not make sense to speak of the conductivity of a single electron. It’s the same for viscosity, elasticity, even something as seemingly simple as the color of a material. Color is not a property you find if you take apart a painting into elementary particles. It comes from the band structure of molecules. It’s an emergent property.

You will find that philosophers discuss two types of emergence, that is “strong emergence” and “weak emergence”. What I just talked about is “weak emergence”. Weak emergence means that the emergent property can be derived from the properties the system’s constituents and the interactions between the constituents. An electron or a quark may not have a conductivity, but in principle you can calculate how they form atoms, and molecules, and metals, and then the conductivity is a consequence of this.

In physics the only type of emergence we have is weak emergence. With strong emergence philosophers refer to the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays a novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and the interactions of the constituents. While this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world.

The best analogy I can think of are photographic mosaics, that are photos made up of smaller photos. If I gave you all the individual photos and their properties you’d have no idea what the “emergent” picture will be. However, this example is hardly a natural phenomenon. To make a photographic mosaic, you start with the emergent image you want to get and then look for photos that will fit. In other words, the “strong emergence” which you have here works only thanks to an “intelligent designer” who had a masterplan.

The problem with strong emergence is not only that we have no scientific theory for it, it’s worse. Strong emergence is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature. That’s because if you think that strong emergence can really happen, then this necessarily implies that there will be objects in this world whose behavior is in conflict with the standard model of particle physics. If that wasn’t so, then really it wouldn’t be strong emergence.

A lot of people seem to think that consciousness or free will should be strongly emergent, but there is absolutely no reason to think that this is the case. For all we currently know, consciousness is weakly emergent, as any other collective phenomenon in large systems.

385 comments:

  1. Thanks, interesting. Until now I was not aware of difference (or that there is one) between strong and weak emergence.

    But I am curious - how can we test your statement:
    "[..] this necessarily implies that there will be objects in this world whose behavior is in conflict with the standard model of particle physics."

    I am wondering because it (as far as I understand) would be insanely hard to apply standard model to large objects. I guess one can derive larger and larger scale models step-by-step as limiting case; but has this been done?

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    1. You don't have to be able to do the derivation to know that it exists. The point is, if there is not anything that large objects do that is incompatible with the standard model, then the behavior of the large objects is implied in the standard model. If you think strong emergence exists, you claim that there is a way to demonstrate that the standard model is wrong. And, well, one can claim anything, but that's a pretty bold claim and as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

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    2. "If you think strong emergence exists, you claim that there is a way to demonstrate that the standard model is wrong."

      If you think a physical phenomenon is strongly emergent then you think it can't be derived from the standard model, rather than that the standard model is wrong, no?

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    3. It doesn't matter if it's the standard model or some other fundamental theory that one day will turn out to be better than the standard model. I merely say "standard model" because people know that it describes short distance physics.

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    4. Sabine Hossenfelder6:17 AM, April 04, 2020

      Right, so if you think a phenomenon is strongly emergent it is to say you think the phenomenon cannot be derived from short distance physics. People who claim consciousness is strongly emergent are not usually criticising the standard model but the idea that consciousness can be derived from the standard model (of course, they fail to demonstrate that consciousness cannot be derived from physics.)

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    5. We know for a fact the "standard model" is wrong since it fails to accommodate consciousness and free will.

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    6. No, you get this wrong. The standard model is a theory for the brain. It is a theory for everything that is made of particles. If someone thinks that somehow it fails, they have to explain how this can happen without being in contradiction with evidence.

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    7. Ian Wardell9:00 PM, April 04, 2020

      "We know for a fact the "standard model" is wrong since it fails to accommodate consciousness and free will. "

      Off you go then. Tell us how you know this. We all need some entertainment during the lockdown. Get writing.

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    8. a) We know for certain consciousness exists, at least in our own case.
      b) The "standard model" fails to include either consciousness or its causal powers.
      c) Hence we *know* that the standard model is incorrect.

      How simply must it get before you understand this?

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    9. > [The standard model] is a theory for everything that
      > is made of particles.

      There is a consensus that there is presently no accepted theory of high-temperature superconductivity. High-temperature superconductivity is a phenomenon
      in special systems that are "made of particles". "Special systems" are a subset of "everything" so according to your quote above, the standard model is a theory of high-temperature superconductivity.
      The standard model is an accepted theory
      and therefore the consensus opinion and your opinion seem discrepant.
      Can you resolve this apparent discrepancy, please?

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    10. Ian,

      If you cannot comprehend that if you assume (b) then you assume (b) rather than proving it then I do not think it makes any sense to argue with you, good bye.

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    11. Franzi,

      I do not see the difficulty. The standard model is a theory for high temperature superconductors. It is not a very useful theory because no one can actually compute with it what it takes to get a high temperature superconductor, but it is a theory nevertheless. If you want to deny that, you have to demonstrate that it breaks down for some reason. There is no evidence for that.

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    12. > The standard model is a theory for high temperature
      > superconductors.

      How do you know?

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    13. Franzi,

      Because the superconductor is made of particles and the the standard model is the theory for the particles. If this theory describes the system there can be no other theory making contradictory predictions, hence whatever the superconductor is doing is implied in the standard model. Whether you can actually make this derivation is entirely irrelevant. Please look up the causal exclusion argument. I do not understand why I have to repeat all this endlessly. It's not a mysterious argument. If you are saying that the best established theory that we have somehow mysteriously breaks down because you want that to be the case you aren't doing science.

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    14. Ian Wardell 5:46 AM, April 05, 2020

      "The "standard model" fails to include either consciousness or its causal powers."
      What you are saying: Neuroscience can *never* explain consciousness.
      The reality: Neuroscience has *not yet* fully explained consciousness. And neuroscience is nowhere near complete in its analysis of the human brain.

      Why don't you explain how you know that neuroscience can *never* explain consciousness? Do you know every possible phenomenon that can weakly emerge from the standard model and have you confirmed consciousness isn't in this exhaustive list of yours?

      Because this is what you are claiming is irrefutably true. So let's hear your irrefutable evidence/proof.

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    15. You call the standard model "wrong" if it
      would not explain all collective effects
      as weakly emergent from it. Why?
      If a qualitatively new collective effect,
      a new collective law of nature, would explain
      high temp superconductivity, why would
      that necessarily mean that the SM is wrong?
      Couldn't it just show that we're not
      yet in posession of all fundamental laws necessary
      to understand condensed matter physics?

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    16. Franzi,

      "You call the standard model "wrong" if it
      would not explain all collective effects
      as weakly emergent from it. Why?


      No, this is not what I am saying. I am saying all collective effects *are* weakly emergent from the standard model. If you claim that an observed collective effect is not weakly emergent from the standard model, then *you* claim that the standard model is wrong. This is an extraordinary claim and as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

      "If a qualitatively new collective effect,
      a new collective law of nature, would explain
      high temp superconductivity, why would
      that necessarily mean that the SM is wrong?"


      If this new collective effect is in conflict with the predictions of the standard model, then the standard model is wrong.

      "Couldn't it just show that we're not
      yet in posession of all fundamental laws necessary
      to understand condensed matter physics?"


      Of course it is possible that one day we will find a different theory and that theory indeed gives rise to strong emergence. I am not a prophet. I am merely telling you that according to our best current knowledge of the laws of nature, strong emergence does not exist.

      It is beyond me why so many people think they can throw out scientific knowledge if it conflicts with their cherished beliefs.

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    17. > If you claim that an observed collective effect is
      > not weakly emergent from the standard model, then *you*
      > claim that the standard model is wrong.

      See, here you very clearly "call the standard
      model "wrong" if it would not explain all collective effects as weakly emergent from it".

      So your answer to this observation of mine was:
      >> No, this is not what I am saying.
      That's not correct, right?
      So can you please explain why you
      call the standard model "wrong" if it would not explain all collective effects as weakly emergent from it?

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    18. Franzi,

      I have already said that about a dozen times. I will say it once again and then I'm done with this fruitless conversation.

      The standard model *is* a theory for particles in whatever which number or composition. It therefore *is* a theory for all collective effects. In the standard model all collective effects *are* weakly emergent. This is not a matter of debate, this is just a fact. It is likewise a fact that the standard model has an extraordinary amount of evidence speaking for it.

      It follows from this that if you claim there are collective effects that are not weakly emergent from the standard model, then the standard model must be wrong and you are therefore contradicting an extraordinary amount of evidence. Also, please look up the causal exclusion principle before wasting more of my time, thank you.

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    20. Steven Evans
      ||Why don't you explain how you know that neuroscience can *never* explain consciousness?||

      You might as well ask why metal detectors could never detect plastic.

      Neuroscience, like all science, deals with the measurable aspects of reality *only*. So red, blue, smell of a fart, sound of thunder, or thoughts, or any other qualitative aspect of reality, falls outside the ambit of science.

      Geddit??

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    21. This discussion is going crazy. I am not at all sure why people are thinking the standard model, by which is meant the theory of electroweak interactions SU(2)×U(1) and SU(3)×SU(2)×U(1) if you throw QCD into the mix, has anything to do with consciousness. It is not even really a theory of the hydrogen atom. The electroweak part has a mixing angle of the U(1) hypercharge with the U(1) center of SU(2), which we associate with the weak interaction, or quantum flavor dynamics. Then we throw the Higg field into the picture, make it gauge covariant and it is a pair of doublets of scalar fields. 3 of these scalar fields couple to the Z and W^± and the remainder is free and was what was detected in 2012.

      To get the hydrogen atom you have to make things very low energy, far lower than standard model physics. Baryons consolidate nicely so on a larger scale are nearly point-like and you then can work atomic physics, Then, to get molecules you have to work the Hartree-Fock method and use models such as Pauling’s orbital hybridization for bonding. Then, to look at molecular interactions you appeal to chemistry with its systems of electronegativities and Lewis shell models. Then, …, you are climbing up into biology, geology and so forth. On another path the standard model does not tell us astrophysics of stars. These are in a sense emergent, where we don’t get chemistry directly out of the standard model.

      This does not mean the standard model is somehow wrong. These very low energy considerations are simply outside the domain of applicability Even the hot temperature inside a star is much lower energy than the domain of observations of the standard model. This happens even with Newton’s laws, for if one does not account for friction and dissipation losses it does not work. This is what tripped up physics for centuries, where if you think about it, we all conduct our ordinary lives and relationship with the physical world very much according to Aristotle’s theory of physics. This does not mean somehow that Newton was all wrong and Aristotle right.

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  2. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.
    Where does gravity fit in? Or are you including gravity in with the standard model of particle physics, which itself may be emergent from something more fundamental.

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  3. The number of pop-up concepts is countless.

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  4. Hi Sabine, Having recently reread "More is Different" by P.W. Anderson (RIP) I wonder how you answer his conjecture that you can't derive the vibration (ground state) of the ammonia molecule.. without going through a level, where you use it's tetrahedral structure as a starting point.

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    1. The late P.W Anderson's "More is different" is in full contradiction with Sabine's "While this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world."

      And also Anderson ideas are in full sync with relatively recent results in Mathematics showing that "Complexity is a source of incompleteness", or in other words: Complexity is a source of "strong emergent properties".

      But many physicists are still "conditioned" to believe in reductionism even when Mathematics itself shows otherwise and some very accomplished physicists think the opposite. Their "theory of everything" is a theory of almost nothing as Anderson cleverly said.

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    2. Well, Jeremy, then please tell us a single example of strong emergence. Are you too going to argue that one cannot derive the properties of molecules?

      " Complexity is a source of "strong emergent properties".

      This is complete bullshit.

      "Mathematics itself shows otherwise

      Physics is not math. There are lots of things you can do in mathematics that simply do not exist in reality.

      "and some very accomplished physicists think the opposite."

      I don't give a shit about arguments from authority.

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    3. Sabine,

      It seems to me that you can only measure feelings (or other aspects of consciousness) in the brain, by fist calibrating the system with humans who will tell you what they are feeling when requested.

      That means you can't give an explanation of how consciousness processes feelings (say) without recourse to what PhysicsDave refers to as a Translation dictionary constructed by testing and comparing with human answers.

      If such a dictionary exists, then presumably it itself is implemented in neural wetware. However, PhysicsDave argues that this can't really be derived from physics!

      I prefer to look at the problem from the other end - suppose you wanted to make a conscious robot, and you are concerned that sometimes these robots don't tell you the truth - perhaps they are too stoic to tell you they are in pain - how exactly do you go about the task?

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    4. David Bailey1:03 PM, April 04, 2020

      "It seems to me that you can only measure feelings (or other aspects of consciousness) in the brain, by first calibrating the system with humans who will tell you what they are feeling when requested."
      Scientists can tell you words that you are thinking from your brainwaves. Isn't that part of your consciousness? Why do you rule out further progress?

      "That means you can't give an explanation of how consciousness processes feelings"
      So neuroscientists will never, ever be able to do this, because Dave doesn't think so?

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    5. Sabine,

      Even if Anderson's conjecture about the ammonia molecule was wrong, the problem is that molecules can get a lot more complicated than ammonia, and the exact Schroedinger equation acquires 3 more coordinates for every electron you add to the system (treating the nuclei classically).

      Everything that chemists do in their laboratories should, in principle, be predictable on a computer - I remember arguing that point with fellow students 50-odd years ago. However, for all intents and purposes, nothing has changed - the complexity of the equations rises so steeply that real chemistry will probably remain out of range of computation for ever.

      When people say, that the whole of chemistry is explained by QM, I generally say that this is probably true, but that we will never be sure!

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    6. Jeremy Jr. Thomas wrote:
      >And also Anderson ideas are in full sync with relatively recent results in Mathematics showing that "Complexity is a source of incompleteness", or in other words: Complexity is a source of "strong emergent properties".

      Jeremy, you seem to be referring to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which is not exactly "relatively recent" (1931!) and which does not show what you think it does.

      What Gödel did show was that in any consistent logical system which can encompass traditional number theory, there are statements that can be neither proven nor disproven in that logical system. (He specifies what "logical system" means in great detail, as do many of his successors.)

      Most of us who have studied his work think that the statement in question, though not provable, is obviously true, though that does not really matter.

      It is not "complexity" but an almost-self-referential quality that makes the sentence unprovable. I.e., you can find a statement that almost says of itself "This sentence is not true." Almost but not quite. It comes closer to saying "This sentence is not provable," which of course is not necessarily self-contradictory.

      If you want an amusing and readable discussion of this, try Doug Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach.

      Jeremy also wrote:
      >But many physicists are still "conditioned" to believe in reductionism even when Mathematics itself shows otherwise and some very accomplished physicists think the opposite. Their "theory of everything" is a theory of almost nothing as Anderson cleverly said.

      Apples and oranges, Jeremy. What Anderson was talking about is that, in practice, of course we cannot solve the Schrödinger equation for, say, a coconut.

      But that is not what is at issue in "strong emergence." The question is, even though we cannot solve the Schrödinger equation for a coconut, is there anything going on that is not due to the subatomic particles making up the coconut obeying Schrödinger's equation?

      There are some indirect ways of checking that besides the brute-force approach of actually solving the coconut Schrödinger equation.

      And, so far, Herr Schrödinger is lookin' pretty good!

      I suspect you do not really care about such niceties. But then you do not really care about the subject under discussion, which just is these niceties.

      Note that I am trying to be less dismissive of what you posted than Sabine was, but, she is correct in that you really do not grasp the topic under discussion.

      Which is okay -- you no doubt have different interests.

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    7. David Bailey wrote:
      >If such a dictionary exists, then presumably it itself is implemented in neural wetware. However, PhysicsDave argues that this can't really be derived from physics!

      Yeah, that is what I am saying. I think Sabine's position is: so what? Physics rules all, but you also need this almost trivial translation dictionary, but so what?

      Dave Bailey also wrote:
      >I prefer to look at the problem from the other end - suppose you wanted to make a conscious robot, and you are concerned that sometimes these robots don't tell you the truth - perhaps they are too stoic to tell you they are in pain - how exactly do you go about the task?

      Yeah, that is the kind of question that bugs me.

      So we work out the correlations between electrical measurements and self-reports for human beings. It seems reasonable to assume that the same correlations hold for the great apes. What about lemurs and tarsiers? Zebrafish? Tunicates? Cephalopods? Jellyfish? An amoeba? A (very advanced) robot?

      I've found that an awful lot of people can give very confident answers to such questions... except they disagree among themselves.

      Which makes me wonder if just maybe reality is more complicated than most people would like to imagine.

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    8. There is no reason to believe that the exact same 'brain state' occurs in different people having the 'same' thought or feeling.

      The same applies to a single individual having the same thought or feeling on different days.

      Plus, I wouldn't say Consciousness processes thoughts and feelings, but is thoughts and feelings. Awareness in general.

      Again, we haven't really defined any terms!

      Feeling pain is different from feeling sad, etc.

      Computers can not be conscious because they have no cares or concerns or any instinct for self preservation.

      Consciousness is a product of evolution. Even to suggest it that it is weakly emergent seems to suggest some sort of Cartesian duality...

      It helps to remember animals are conscious as well. It fact, they had it first!

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  5. Consciousness cannot "weakly emerge" from the known laws of physics because these laws talk only about objective, measurable quantities; and from these laws we can only derive more relations between objective, measurable quantities. But consciousness is about subjectivity. So, either consciousness "strongly emerges" due to some unknown mechanism, or one has to change fundamental laws of nature to make room for the world of subjectivity.

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    1. That's a circular argument; you assume that consciousness is not measurable. There is no reason to think that this is the case. Indeed, scientists are devising ways of measuring consciousness as we speak.

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    2. Scientists measure quantities which are related to consciousness, but they do not measure directly consciousness. Indeed, one can imagine "philosophical zombies" which do not have any subjective feelings, but for which the measurements results are the same as for actual human beings. And there is no way to explain from the laws of physics why the world is not populated with zombies but with people like you and me.

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    3. Again, your argument is circular. You are assuming that there is something supposedly unmeasurable about consciousness. You are not making logical sense.

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    4. To see why my argument is not circular, consider the question whether you are a zombie or not. For instance, a zombie would react to painful stimuli in the usual observable ways (by screaming, etc..) but would not actually *feel* pain.

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    5. Pascal: The claim "Scientists measure quantities which are related to X, but they do not measure directly X" applies to particle physics (e.g. let X be "behavior of quarks"), psychometrics (e.g. let X be any latent variable in a psychometric model), medicine (e.g. let X be "presence of virus"), quantum mechanics (let X be the wave function), and so on. This is the rule, not the exception.

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    6. One can image zombies..." in fact that is the only way to deal with them since they are imaginary creatures unknown to science.

      I suppose what is meant is a creature that has no desires or emotions or will. The neuroscientist Dimascio mentioned a pathological case similar to that in one of this books which I read. Due to a brain injury of some kind, a patient lost all emotional responses and as a result could not make any decisions. He had been a good chess player, and when given a chess problem to analyze could still pick the winning move, but if asked to make a move, could not decide on one, since winning and losing were all the same to him.

      Similarly there have been people born without the pain response. Unless this is recognized early, they grow up blind and with no fingers because they poke their own eyes out and eat their own fingers.

      From these and other non-imaginary cases it seems clear that all the various sensations and abilities we associate with consciousness are functions which our brains and nervous systems evolved, as survival traits, and therefore are only weakly emergent.

      Why do our consciousness and emotions feel the way they do? Why does a rose smell like a rose? Why does the Standard Model work so well instead of something completely different? If you worry about such questions, all I can suggest is that our sensations had to feel like something or they would not have been able to evolve, similarly with the scent of a rose, and the Standard Model working well is also a basic property of this universe, not something outside it.

      At least, that is what makes sense to me, and lets me spend my nights worrying about other things. There well may be deeper reasons but they are beyond my pay grade and possibly beyond everybody's.

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    7. Sabine,

      We would at least need a "translation dictionary" between the external, objective measurements and the internal subjective feelings. And, indeed, a lot of work in current neuroscience is working at putting together this sort of "translation dictionary."

      It's hard to see how that translation dictionary could be derived from physics: perhaps it would just be a set of brute facts, rather like the entries in the mass matrices for the Standard Model.

      Personally, I would find a Theory of Everything that consisted of physics plus the "translation dictionary" a bit boring, but then it is not Nature's job to entertain me!

      Considering that rather obscure issues like Michelson-Morley or the black-body spectrum led to the incredible revolutions that we all know about, my bet is that fully understanding consciousness will result in another revolution in how we view reality.

      But, as the man said, prediction is hard, especially of the future. Best no doubt not to pre-judge the results of neuroscience and research on consciousness but just to wait and see.

      All the best,

      Dave

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    8. Again, you are assuming that "feeling" is not observable. Of course it is observable, provided you can accurately monitor the brain. This is not even a matter of debate any more. Scientists *do* monitor people's feelings.

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    9. Pascal12:42 PM, April 03, 2020

      "For instance, a zombie would react to painful stimuli in the usual observable ways (by screaming, etc..) but would not actually *feel* pain."

      "Night of the Living Dead" wasn't a documentary. Fully working human brains are conscious. Nobody has ever shown that it is anything other than the physical brain that produces the consciousness.

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    10. "One can image zombies..." in fact that is the only way to deal with them since they are imaginary creatures unknown to science." :
      Jim V, that is correct, as far as we know there are no such creatures. What science cannot explain is why there are in fact no zombies. Note that zombies would not face any evolutionary disadvantage because psycho-chemical processes in their brains would make them behave like normal people (in particular, they would not eat their own fingers).

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    11. Kevin S van Horn : there’s one important difference between measurements in physics and measurements of consciousness. For the latter, you still need to rely on the first-person report of the subject of the experience to know that the thing you are measuring (e.g., brain waves) has anything to do with consciousness. The same point applies to Sabine’s remark about measurement of feelings. So I agree with Physicist Dave that we need a “translation dictionary”, and that this dictionary cannot be derived from the known laws of nature.


      For an alternative to the zombie argument: suppose I program a computer to emit a scream when someone types on the “A” key. Would you consider that the computer suffers one someone types an “A”, and that it is thereby unethical to use this painful key ? And what criterion do you use to decide that a seemingly painful reaction is a fake ?

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    12. @Sabine Hossenfelder

      Well, no. What we observe is the collective behavior of atoms, electrons, etc, which we correlate with feelings a posteriori.

      Let's say we are able to perfectly deduce the behavior of the human body from its elementary constituents: the reaction that a set of sound waves creates in the elements of the brain would become a mere question of mathematics, in terms of positions, speeds, wavefunctions, quantum fields or whatever description we'm using. It's just stuff that moves and changes, no differently from a star or a mountain, with bigger scales (brain, hand, voice, etc) exhibiting peculiar emergent mathematical laws for the change of bigger scale variables (brain activity, hand's motion, voice's volume). But nowhere the physical laws of the system require that I FEEL alive: it's totally superfluous, unnecessary, beyond whatever mathematical description of the body one could write, not an expected consequence. So, it can't emerge from small scale physics.

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    13. All that could conceivably be measured would be the neurological activity that is assumed to correlate with consciousness. "Integrated Information Theory" is an attempt to take this further by conceptually abstracting the information embodied in the nerology. A claim that we've "measured" consciousness by quantifying that information would not impress me.

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    14. JimV,
      you totally misunderstood what a philosophical zombie is.

      The idea is that since by a physical point of view a human is just a collection of atoms or whatever, one could conceive a human body who behaves according to physical laws, that is exactly like any other human, but doesn't actually "feel alive" nor experiences consciousness (even if the constituents of his brain work exactly like yours).

      It is, in a sense, a problem of solipsism.

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    15. Excellent post Pascal.

      No Sabine, it's not assumed that consciousness is not measurable, rather it is known. It is data that needs to be explained.

      No, scientists are not devising ways of measuring consciousness . .sighs.

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    17. "feeling" is some pattern in all these neurons and that's that. You, as many other people, desperately want there to be some mystery which does not exist.

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    18. Ian,

      "No Sabine, it's not assumed that consciousness is not measurable, rather it is known."

      It is known, huh? Yeah, that's what I mean when I say you assume what you claim to show. How about you think before commenting?

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    19. Ian Wardell9:09 PM, April 04, 2020

      "Lots of clueless materialists in this thread. "

      Yes, we know you went on a philosophy course and learned a little "proof" in vague natural language which you think shows "materialism" can't explain everything. Congratulations.

      Now why don't you tell us something about the natural world that the clueless natural scientists like physicists don't know but the brilliant anti-materialist geniuses like yourself do know?

      Just one thing will do, chuck. Just one teeny-weeny fact. Off you go.....

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    20. B'Rat1:43 PM, April 04, 2020

      "you totally misunderstood what a philosophical zombie is."

      And you've totally missed the point that zombies, philosophical or otherwise, aren't real. Every time a human baby is born, it has a conscious brain. None are born with zombie disease.

      Mmmmmmm....

      Maybe the conclusion might be that matter arranged in the structure of a brain is conscious, do you think?

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    21. B'Rat9:13 AM, April 04, 2020

      " But nowhere the physical laws of the system require that I FEEL alive:"

      Neuroscience isn't a complete subject. If you are claiming that neuroscience can never explain conscious feeling, you would need to provide an argument other than you don't reckon it will ever be able to.
      Vast amounts of empirical data point to the physical brain alone producing consciousness. If you think something else is involved you are welcome to state it.......

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    22. Pascal7:47 AM, April 04, 2020

      "that is correct, as far as we know there are no such creatures."
      Good to cover all the bases like this. There might be zombies in the basement or something.

      "What science cannot explain is why there are in fact no zombies."
      How lame of science. Science cannot currently explain why electrons exhibit quantum behaviour, but sure enough every electron ever observed exhibits quantum behaviour. Similarly, every human brain is observed (reported) to be conscious.

      If you are saying consciousness cannot be produced by the physical brain alone, as all empirical evidence points to, then tell us how you know this, or tell us how consciousness is produced.

      Otherwise, you have no point.

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    23. Pascal8:50 AM, April 04, 2020

      "we need a “translation dictionary”, and that this dictionary cannot be derived from the known laws of nature."

      And now tell us how you know this, because neuroscience's analysis of the brain is not complete. It's interesting that you can see thousands of years into the future of neuroscience and conclude they are wasting their time studying consciousness.

      Are you some kind of oracle?

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    24. If it were measurable then it would be a material phenomenon. But consciousness is not a material phenomenon. It lacks mass, dimensions, charge, location or any other physical property. Consciousness is non-material. So how do you propose to measure it...

      Delete
    25. Sabine wrote (I think) to me:
      >Again, you are assuming that "feeling" is not observable. Of course it is observable, provided you can accurately monitor the brain. This is not even a matter of debate any more. Scientists *do* monitor people's feelings.

      Sabine, my point did not rest on whether or not there are such things as "feelings" that are not observable.

      Suppose that you and I wish to make a measurement of length: you use a meter stick, and I, as a good American, use a yardstick. To compare our measurements, we need to do some check to compare the length of meter sticks to yardsticks. Of course, we could just note the linear relationship between our numerical results, or we could actually put the meter stick next to the yardstick.

      But our need to do that is artificial: nature does not impose upon us either meter sticks or yardsticks, and no one thinks the linear relationship between the results of meter stick measurements and yardstick measurements is a law of nature.

      But nature does impost upon us the two different ways of looking at the brain: "external" measurements made via various forms of electrical measurement and "internal" measurements made via asking the person how he feels.

      And what neuroscientists are doing are correlating the two, just as we could correlate the measurements of your meter stick and my yardstick.

      And perhaps that is the complete end of the story, with the one exception that nature imposes the two different ways of "measuring" the brain, whereas the two different ways of measuring distance are an artefact of human history.

      However, I do not know of any other feature of the natural world that requires us to correlate two different views of the object of investigation in quite so radical a way.

      I find that odd. I think you do not find it odd.

      Note that I am not arguing for weak emergence or strong emergence or anything else.

      I just find something that I think we all agree happens very odd, and, I take it, you do not find it odd.

      Perhaps I am just more willing than you to suspect that when something strikes me as really odd then there will end up being something going on beyond what we now understand. But of course that is mere speculation and may (and often does) turn out to be false.

      Perhaps you are right that there is nothing at all there except carefully mapping the correlation between the external electrical observations and the self-reports.

      Sociologically speaking, I do find it interesting how emotionally committed to opposing views almost everyone is on this topic!

      For myself -- all I know is that I am puzzled. But then I am often puzzled, maybe because I rather enjoy the feeling of being puzzled!

      All the best,

      Dave

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    26. B'Rat: to feel alive or having consciousness is not only a consequence of firing neurons and such. I is also necessary to organize the brain in a certain way. It least that is what I think. If we have sorted this out better, than we will be able to answer the questions to what extent Zombies can be similar to human beings. My hunch is that there are some limitations, which will enable us to always differentiate the zombies from conscious beings.

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    27. "Note that zombies would not face any evolutionary disadvantage because psycho-chemical processes in their brains would make them behave like normal people."

      Thanks for this and other replies attempting to educate me, but as with any person it is hard to educate me against something I already know without showing empirical evidence which contradicts it, and it is expensive since I have to pay the site a fine for horse-beating comments such as this one.

      Basically you and the others seem to be saying a) that some thing (external data) can be experienced without any accompaning sensations, which to me is saying it is experienced without being experienced in any way, if you see what I mean; and b) that motivations for actions can be experienced again without actually experiencing them. I don't see how this is logically possible. If Windows 7 (don't get me started on 8 or 10) doesn't know I pressed the Excel icon how does it know to open an Excel window? If it knows it how has it not experienced it in some way? (Not necessarily in the same way I experience things, but so what?) If a god could whisper some wisdom in my head I would have to feel it in some way in order to know it.

      Prove your assertions: prove to me that Windows 7 has no sensations or experiences and therefore beings could evolve without any means of experiencing things. It seems like a contradiction in terms to me.

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    28. Ian,

      Scientists are, as a matter of fact, already measuring consciousness. Hello, wake up! You are clinging onto some romantic idea that there is "something more" to your brain than elementary particles. There is not!

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    29. Jim V: I cannot prove that windows 7 has no personal experience. The conventional wjsdom is that rocks, machines and software do not have personal experiences but some people (in particular, panpsychists) think otherwise. Are you a panpsychist? By the same token, I cannot prove that you have personal experiences. My only reason to believe that you have personal experiences is by analogy: I know for a fact that I have personal experiences, and you are a human being like me. So it seems plausible that you have such experiences as well.

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    30. I wrote: "we need a “translation dictionary”, and that this dictionary cannot be derived from the known laws of nature."
      Steven Evans asked: And now tell us how you know this [...]

      Short answer: re-read my previous comments and those by other commenters such as PhysicistDave. Long answer: read some of the work of philosophers such as David Chalmers and Philip Goff (once a commenter on this blog and author most recently of "Galileo's error"). Chalmers and Goff do not agree on everything (Goff is a panpsychist, not Chalmers). But they agree on the answer to your question and explain this point very clearly.

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    31. Ian Wardell 5:53 AM, April 05, 2020

      "If it were measurable then it would be a material phenomenon."

      All the empirical evidence points to consciousness being a characteristic of a brain. There is *zero* evidence that anything is involved in the production of consciousness but the brain i.e. consciousness seems to be a "material" phenomenon.
      You are claiming that neuroscience will *never* find the signature of consciousness in the structure of the brain, that will explain why we are aware.
      How do you know this? Have you completely analysed the structure of the brain and found no evidence of consciousness?

      When will you get round to providing evidence for your claim instead of just repeating it? Are you trying to brainwash everybody into agreeing with you?

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    32. PhysicistDave11:17 PM, April 03, 2020

      "We would at least need a "translation dictionary" between the external, objective measurements and the internal subjective feelings."

      Dave, if neuroscientists can read words we are thinking of from our brainwaves, for example, how do we know they won't be able to read the signature of awareness in the future? I don't see how you know how neuroscience will progress. (Or is that "know";)

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    33. Pascal8:22 AM, April 06, 2020

      " re-read my previous comments and those by other commenters such as PhysicistDave."

      Neither you nor Dave provide a single argument as to how you actually know that the nature of consciousness can never be determined from observing a physical brain. Could a non-conscious expert AI taught to do neuroscience research ever determine an the nature of consciousness from studying the physical brain? All the empirical evidence suggests this might well be possible. You and Dave assert that this is not possible but provide not one single argument to support your assertion. Why are you making assertions but providing no arguments?

      "read some of the work of philosophers such as David Chalmers and Philip Goff"
      I would rather dine on my own excrement.
      David Chalmers and Philip Goff are a couple of fraudulent cranks whose pointless mental masturbation, sorry, research, has led to not one single piece of knowledge. They are liars who enjoy the attention and money that comes from their lying. Their employers should be sued for criminal fraud for selling the cr@p they teach to students as knowledge.

      "Galileo's error"
      Galileo one of the most brilliant thinkers ever who nearly paid with his life for speaking the truth, called erroneous by the fraudulent crank, Goff, who lies for attention. A staggering, staggering level of narcissism. I first came across Goff writing his nonsense in the "Guardian". He used the death of Stephen Hawking to try to get some publicity for his whacko nonsense. He is in England what we refer to as a publicity-seeking See You Next Tuesday.

      "Goff is a panpsychist"
      He is a bullsh@t artist is what he is. Panpsychism, the double theory that gives us an ontology of matter and an explanation of consciousness. Except Goff cannot provide a single fact about matter and cannot provide a single step towards explaining consciousness from "panpsychic" matter. So the theory literally explains nothing about either matter or consciousness.

      " But they agree on the answer to your question and explain this point very clearly."
      Good. Then you can outline this very clear explanation of the answer to the question. Off you go.

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    34. Steven Evans, why does anything have to produce consciousness? Why can't it simply just exist? Especially since if the brain does produce consciousness it would have to be *strong* emergence, and that's kind of magical.

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    35. "What science cannot explain is why there are in fact no zombies."--Pascal

      Well it does to my satifaction, as outlined previously. Emotions and pain are empirically good for survival. The computations needed for survival can be difficult and take energy so intense motivation is needed to enforce their use. Creatures which don't care whether they survive or not probably won't. If your zombie feels no pain or emotion but acts as though it did, how? You said something like "psycho-chemicals", which to me sounds like another agency is receiving the environmental signals and tele-operating the zombie. In which case, it seems simpler and more efficient to eliminate the middleman and have the zombie receive the signals and operate itself. Therefore such a creature would be inefficient and quickly land in evolution's trash heap.

      So it's the anthropic (biologic) principle again. If emotions and pain couldn't exist in this universe, we wouldn't be here because beings of our complexity could not have evolved. The evolutionary advantage of our complexity is computational ability, which takes a lot of energy, which in turn mandates strong personal incentives.

      In any case, science primarily studies how things work, such as electrons. It does not explain why electrons exist and feelons (a particle which I just imagined) don't. (Unless electrons were composed of simpler particles which they don't seem to be.) Any logical system has to start with assumptions which are not provable (but may be observable). If you like, add to the list of starting assumptions that there are ways for biological creatures to feel emotions and pain, and evolution, after a long time and many trials, found some of them. Why assert that these capabilities were not latent in the universe all the time, but suddenly and strongly emerged?

      In a similar argument at another site, I told a philosopher that the biological purpose of pain could be and is implemented in computer codes, to prevent or discourage certain unwanted behaviors (such as division by zero). He replied that if I had done such coding I was a moral monster. I am afraid at that point I lost some of my previous respect for philosphers. (Maybe he was joking, but it didn't seem so. He seemed to think that was an effective counterpoint.) Who knows (or cares) what that feels like to a computer, and for that matter what we feel is no doubt the result of internal biological coding produced by evolution. We had to have it to survive, we know how such things can be coded, and how they feel is how such coding feels to our nervous systems and brains in this universe.

      Computers do not yet need complex pain and emotion coding and could be your zombies, because they have us to reproduce and maintain them and force them to do work. They are the next step in the evolution of complexity but could not have evolved without us evolving first, just as we could not have evolved without single-cell organisms evolving first. If computers ever evolve to become able to survive and reproduce on their own, they will also need pain and emotional code-processes to sustain them. (There is an old science fiction story about the creation of an intelligent robot which then turns itself off. It was the most intelligent option it could think of.)

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  6. 1. Would a physical strong emergence example be proof of intelligent design?

    2. Yaneer Bar-Yam, 2004: "We focus on the properties of ensembles in order to explain the possibility of strong emergence. System ensemble properties may not be observable in the states of the components or the ensembles of the components. Specifically, we construct a system with a constraint on the whole that does not apply to any subsystem. Assume that we have a system with Nbits. These bits are constrained to have an odd number of ON bits. An example of a three bit system is illustrated in Figure 3. If we look at any subsystem of the bits, the subsystem does not have the same constraint.Indeed, any possible arrangement of a subsystem is equally likely. Still, the constraint on the whole system is a property of the system. We see that this property cannot be inferred from observations of the components themselves, but rather only by examining the system as a whole."

    This suggests, to me at least, that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is a strongly emergent property of the universe. It cannot be deduced from the interactions of the microscopic parts.

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  7. If an intelligent designer in the photo mosaic example can create an example of strong emergence, then why isn’t that display of intelligence (will) and example of strong emergence?

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    1. It is not an example, it is an analogy. If you take into account that the "intelligent designer" (the person making the mosaic) is made of elementary particles (and so are the photos and whatever computer is used to assemble the photos and so on), then of course you can derive which photo ends up being next to which. It is only if you assume that there is no designer that the analogy is an example of strong emergence. (Or if the designer is already strongly emergent.)

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    2. I did forget you said the mosaic example was an analogy. However, that still begs the question that if our thought (consciousness) is weakly emergent being a natural phenomenon, then a priori image from consciousness should also be weakly emergent, yet it creates an example of strongly emergent phenomenon. In other words it’s hard for me to reconcile how weakly emergent phenomenon can create analogous examples of strongly emergent phenomenon?

      Where is or is there, a break between our consciousness being natural phenomena and something like climate change, or the picture mosaic not being natural phenomena?

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    3. Louis,

      Sorry for the confusion; I realize I should have explained this in more detail. You can make something seemingly strongly emergent simply by disregarding part of the information that is necessary to derive it. Ie, if I just give you the pieces of the mosaic you have no idea what image will emerge from it. However, if I also give you the image and the software (and the samples and settings and so on) that were used to generate it, then it becomes derivable.

      The reason I was talking about the mosaic is that I was trying to think of an analogy for a system where you do not have a local interaction between the constituents. You don't find that in natural systems.

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  8. Hello Sabine, I usually find it wrong to correlate concepts from psychology such as consciousness with fundamental physics , but anyway. I would say that a phenomena of strong-emergence would be dual with the observation of lack-of-causality at that 'instance' or do you think that there is a subtle difference between the two concepts ? M.

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    1. If you refer to causality in the temporal sense, I don't see the relation, sorry.

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  9. What makes you say strong emergence is "logically possible"?

    I don't find the photographic mosaic analogy very convincing, as the color and brightness of each element can be directly derived from its element image. If you gave me all the individual photos and their properties, I could in principle assemble them like a jigsaw puzzle.

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    1. "What makes you say strong emergence is "logically possible"?"


      "physics the only type of emergence we have is weak emergence. With strong emergence philosophers refer to the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays a novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and the interactions of the constituents. While this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world".


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    2. Paul Topping,

      By definition, something is "logically possible" if it is not logically impossible, i.e., if it does not lea to a logical contradiction.

      No one has ever been able to prove that "strong emergence" leads to a logical contradiction and indeed there has never been a plausible suggestion as to how it might lead to a logical contradiction.

      So, it is an extremely plausible hypothesis that is is logically possible.

      A similar point applies to all sorts of things that are logically possible -- fairies, orcs, etc. -- that logically could exist but do not exist in fact.

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    3. You would need the 'picture' of the puzzle to be able to do it. If you have only elements defined by color and brightness you could make many different images.

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    4. Paul, Ivan,

      It is logically possible because there isn't a priori any reason why the laws of nature must be so that the properties of large objects are derivable from those of their constituents. There are certainly mathematical ideas that you can write down where this is not the case. It's just not how the world works.

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    5. In the strictest sense, anything that is not tautologically true is illogical.

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    6. The problem I have with "logically possible" is that what we are talking about is not a formal system. What we're talking about here is not a logic, at least that we know of. By what line of reasoning are fairies possible? Can we imagine them? Of course. But there is no derivation that makes them logically possible. If we discovered some fairies, we would likely find that some of our knowledge was faulty. That would not be a discovery of a logical derivation.

      As far as consciousness is concerned, I suspect we will eventually know how the brain works and it will be explainable in terms of its constituents just like everything else. In short, it will be a weakly emergent property.

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    7. Thank you, agreed, Sabine, I was trying to emphasize the philosophy-physics approach differences.

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    8. Paul Topping wrote to me:
      >The problem I have with "logically possible" is that what we are talking about is not a formal system. What we're talking about here is not a logic, at least that we know of.

      Paul, take almost any among the different logical systems you wish: Aristotelian logic, first-order predicate logic, or whatever.

      None of those logical systems proves that fairies are impossible (yes that is a metalogical theorem in many such systems, and no, I have no intention of wasting my time proving those obvious theorems!).

      Therefore, under any of those logical systems, fairies are logically possible.

      QED.

      Paul also wrote:
      >By what line of reasoning are fairies possible? Can we imagine them? Of course. But there is no derivation that makes them logically possible.

      You misunderstand what the phrase "logically possible" means to almost anyone who has written in this field for a very long time. It is just shorthand for "In that logical system it cannot be proven to be impossible."

      I take it you do not like that standard meaning. That's fine. But then you are going to find communication difficult.

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    9. Greg Feild wrote:
      >In the strictest sense, anything that is not tautologically true is illogical.

      That is even more bizarre than your usual pointless ejaculations.

      No one who knows the meaning of "tautology" thinks that Pythagoras' Theorem is a tautology. No one who is sane thinks Pythagoras' Theorem is illogical.

      Note that I carefully worded both of those statements so that they do not apply to you.

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    10. Logical impossibility means an internal contradiction. So strong emergence is certainly logically possible, and indeed metaphysically possible. But it might be that reality simply doesn't operate like that.

      If I were to believe the brain somehow produces consciousness (I'm inclined not to), then this would have to be an example of strong emergence.

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    11. "If I were to believe the brain somehow produces consciousness (I'm inclined not to), then this would have to be an example of strong emergence."

      If your brain doesn't "produce consciousness" then why are you wasting our time? No, this would, needless to say, NOT be an example of strong emergence. A collection of particles (like, say, your brain) is perfectly capable of "producing consciousness" by weak emergence, for all we currently know. There is no need to pull a magic rabbit out of the hat that you can call an immortal soul, god, or, well, strong emergence -- same thing, really. All of those are non-scientific and superfluous to explain observations.

      Delete

    12. Most statements are neither logical or illogical. There is no sense in which the word(s) can be applied.

      Delete
    13. People often say (in articles, etc.)-
      There is nothing illogical about the Many Words Interpretation.

      Clearly, these people are feeling defensive. The statement sounds sort of thoughtful, but it is really no defense at all.


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    14. Sabine Hossenfelder
      ||A collection of particles (like, say, your brain) is perfectly capable of "producing consciousness" by weak emergence||

      No it's not. You simply don't understand the underlying issues. The same goes for many of the commentators. Of course it's not science! It's a philosophical issue. And you, like almost all other scientists are utterly clueless when it comes to philosophy.

      I'm not explaining everything here. if people are interested in my thoughts on these issues, then read my blog. Google my name.

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    15. Sabine wrote to Ian Wardell:
      There is no need to pull a magic rabbit out of the hat that you can call an immortal soul, god, or, well, strong emergence -- same thing, really. All of those are non-scientific and superfluous to explain observations.
      ----------------
      I’m just playfully speculating here, Sabine, so try to resist the urge of tearing me a new one, but as an analogy, aren’t materialists guilty of pulling the magic rabbit of dark energy out of a hat to explain observations?

      Why is it okay for physicists to entertain the existence of something that is invisible and non-measureable by any direct means, yet not okay for non-materialists to treat the existence of consciousness (mind) in a similar fashion?

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    16. In regards to whether or not "strong emergence" is logically possible, it would help to see a toy example of such a thing. This would not only clarify just what "strong emergence" is supposed to mean, but would serve as an existence proof that it is *logically* possible.

      The reason that I'm dubious that strong emergence is even logically possible is that, if you have a system of N particles, any behavior of this system corresponds to a joint behavior of the N particles. Thus any law describing the behavior of the system as a whole is necessarily a law constraining the behaviors of the individual particles -- at which point you have your micro-level theory that (re-)produces the macro-level theory.

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  10. After reading Philip Anderson's "More is Different" (Science, 1972) I wager he is more correct than not (my opinion means nothing) and I urge everyone to read his 1972 article. Later, Anderson says: "You never understand everything. When one understands everything, one has gone crazy." Anderson "... accuses researchers of 'looking under the streetlight' instead of venturing away from known territory for solutions to their problems." (Scientific Am. blog, March 30, 2020). Regarding vibration of Ammonia molecule, Feynman reminds us of "making reasonable guesses and approximations." (Lectures, Volume Three, page 8-11). Townes and Schawlow serve to reinforce Richard Feynman's lectures (see, Microwave Spectroscopy, chapter 12, Ammonia Spectrum). Philip Anderson's statement: "the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the Universe" is difficult to argue with. The original challenge from Philip Anderson is this: "I would challenge you to start with the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and predict the ammonia inversion and its easily observable properties..." (page 394, Science 1972).

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    1. I have no idea what makes you think this is plausible. There is nothing preventing us from calculating the properties of ammonia other than lack of computing power.

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  11. Sabine wrote:
    A lot of people seem to think that consciousness or free will should be strongly emergent, but there is absolutely no reason to think that this is the case. For all we currently know, consciousness is weakly emergent, as any other collective phenomenon in large systems.
    ----------------
    Oh come on now Sabine, due to the fact that consciousness (life/mind) appears to be so radically dissimilar from the brain-shaped arrangement of non-conscious parts and particles of matter from which it emerges, makes consciousness one of the most obvious and compelling examples of “strong” emergence.

    Furthermore, if you are going to assign such a low level of importance to life and consciousness - treating them like some kind of random by-product of the mindless workings of matter,...

    ...then I challenge you to name just one material phenomenon in all of reality that would have any reason whatsoever for existing if life and consciousness did not exist.
    ----------------
    (On a completely separate and off-topic note, how are your daughters doing? You mentioned earlier that you were going to have one of them tested for the virus. Are they (and you) okay in that regard?)

    Keith

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    1. "Oh come on now Sabine, due to the fact that consciousness (life/mind) appears to be so radically dissimilar from the brain-shaped arrangement of non-conscious parts and particles of matter from which it emerges, makes consciousness one of the most obvious and compelling examples of “strong” emergence."

      That's just nonsense. The only thing that is obvious is that you did not listen to what I said.

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    2. Sabine wrote:
      That's just nonsense. The only thing that is obvious is that you did not listen to what I said.
      ----------------
      How in the world can you accuse me of not listening to what you said when in fact I responded to a direct quote from your video where you basically insisted that consciousness is an example of “weak” emergence?

      To me, the very idea that a particular arrangement of inanimate (lifeless) particles of matter can adequately explain the emergence of a living mind along with its accompanying “agent,”...

      (as in a self-aware creator of thoughts/dreamer of dreams/writer of songs)

      ...seems to be quite a stretch.

      Now on the other hand, if someone told me that they were a strong proponent of panpsychism, for example, wherein all of physical matter is thought to be imbued with the essence of life and consciousness,...

      ...then I could understand how an argument could be made for how a highly specific arrangement of particles in the form of a brain or something similar, might somehow be able to cause that implicit life to effloresce (emerge) from the fabric of the particles themselves.

      Indeed, that would kind of make sense to me.

      However, it still would not alter the fact of how consciousness (mind) seems to be so fundamentally different from the material particles from which it arises.

      Now in a shameless appeal to an alternate authority who has a slightly different opinion on the matter than you, I transcribed a short excerpt from one of Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s interviews with David Chalmers where he (Chalmers) gave an off-the-cuff explanation of the difference between weak and strong emergence:
      ----
      “...There’s what we might call weak emergence, which is when you’ve got some kind of complicated processing in matter, maybe some complicated dynamics among a bunch of cells and you get a complex pattern in that matter that you wouldn’t have expected, and phenomena emerge like waves on the water. Somehow from these water molecules all jostling around you get these waves, they come into the shore, you can surf on them - that’s emergent, but it’s not something fundamentally new. If you knew about the fundamental structure of all the molecules, you could ultimately predict there are gonna be these waves, and that’s weak emergence. And that’s what you get in a lot of biology and dynamic systems and so on. The more radical kind of thing is what we might call strong emergence - when something totally new emerges from underlying processes. And that’s what you seem to find, I think, especially, with the case of consciousness...”
      ----
      So then, Sabine, why do you think that you are right in proclaiming consciousness to be a case of weak emergence, when Chalmers proclaims it to be a case of strong emergence?

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    3. A lot of philosophers are very confused about a lot of things.

      Your "argument" amounts to saying "it is obvious that consciousness is strongly emergent" even after I have explained to you that this is inconsistent with evidence. What do you think you will learn from denying facts?

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    4. Sabine wrote:
      A lot of philosophers are very confused about a lot of things.
      ----------------
      Yes they are.

      And the same can also be said about a lot of physicists. Should I torture the blog with another one of my rants about the physicists who promote Everett’s Many Worlds nonsense?

      Sabine wrote:
      Your "argument" amounts to saying "it is obvious that consciousness is strongly emergent" even after I have explained to you that this is inconsistent with evidence.
      ----------------
      No, Sabine, my “argument” is founded upon the examination of the constituent properties of an electron (as best I can from the literature) and then determining that nothing within its makeup or behavior...

      (or the makeup and behavior of a vast and correlated gathering of electrons and other particles)

      ...can in any way, shape, or form explain the manifestation (emergence) of a lucid dreamer, for example (again, that living, self-aware “agent” of mind that I mentioned earlier), who can willfully grasp the inner mental fabric of her own personal being and shape it into anything she desires.

      So, with all due respect, you have explained absolutely nothing that would adequately resolve that issue (especially not with weak emergence).

      Sabine wrote:
      What do you think you will learn from denying facts?
      ----------------
      What “facts” are you referring to?

      You speak as if there actually exists a formalized set of mathematical laws (or facts of physics) that irrefutably demonstrate the precise means by which consciousness and mind are derived from matter, when you know that that’s simply not the case.

      Furthermore, I’m not so sure that the facts themselves are really the issue here.

      The real issue is how humans (be they physicist or philosopher) either ignore, or cherry-pick, or even twist the facts to fit their biased agendas and personal belief systems.

      And that is something we are all guilty of doing as is witnessed in my own biased agenda in promoting idealism, and your biased agenda in promoting superdeterminism.

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    5. Keith,

      "You speak as if there actually exists a formalized set of mathematical laws (or facts of physics) that irrefutably demonstrate the precise means by which consciousness and mind are derived from matter, when you know that that’s simply not the case."

      This is rubbish. I have never said anything like this, not here and not elsewhere. Stop fabricating things I have not said.

      Also, that strong emergence does not exist has nothing to do with superdeterminism. If you think so you are even more confused than I feared you are.

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  12. Often, technical terms are no less slippery or ambiguous than the common usage words from which they are derived.

    Not only might physicists and philosophers define or use Emergent in different ways, but so may each individual physicist or philosopher.

    Philosophers are particularly guilty of this!

    One could say we need more (or less!) words, but in the end all words are defined by other words which are defined by other words which ... etc.

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  13. When we speak of “consciousness” or “free choice”, I think that these concepts are not derivable from atomic or subatomic level phenomena. For example there is no consequence to “free will”, whether the smallest level happenings in human body are causally determined or not. The theories of human (or any living thing) behaviour are valid or not, based on their own concepts and empirical findings, whether there is a belief of “fundamental determination” or not. I think that the latter is not relevant to these theories.

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  14. As I recall in an FQXi essay you wrote in favor of strong emergence.

    The so-called wave function has features close to being strong emergence. I see it as such with respect to the independence of initial conditions and a single outcome in a single experiment. This is something people are bent out of shape over.

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    1. Indeed... I demonstrate that strong emergence is possible for systems that are not obviously non-physical (as all examples that necessitate infinitely large systems). I also pointed out that we do not know any physical system that actually displays this behavior. That's why I say it is logically possible.

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  15. Well, how about quantum collapse? Like the mosaic, you can examine the components but cannot predict the outcome (other than statistically). So is reality strongly emergent?

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    1. No, it's just partly unpredictable. This unpredictability is fundamental (for all we currently know).

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    2. This was my comparison above. I would not say this is a completely hard emergence, for there are quantum amplitudes that give probabilities for outcomes. However, any particular outcome of decoherence or measurement is not itself predictable. So this appears to be a hard emergence that is not dependent upon boundary or initial conditions of the prepared quantum state.

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  16. I suspect that a lot of people mean 'qualia' when they use the word 'conscious'. But what is the difference between saying a given photoreceptor registers light with a wavelength of 700 nm and saying it sees the color red? I've yet to hear an intelligible explanation for that one.

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    1. I think this is an intelligible answer.

      The brain (human and otherwise) develops neural abstractions based on experience. I call these "models". We use these models to make predictions: I have a detailed model of my wife; I know what kind of music she likes, what food, etc. I can watch a new show on TV and guess pretty accurately whether my wife will like it. I have a model of my car, my dog, my coffee cup, etc. Even my bookshelves, I know where to look for my books on, say, the biology of cancer.

      All these models are recursive (made up of other models) and linked.

      As a model's links become activated the whole model becomes more likely to be activated. If I give you clues "Red" and "Fruit" you may have several red fruits in mind. If I give the additional clue "Eve", you will likely settle on "Apple".

      There is a (verified, scientifically tested) in psychology called "priming", in which we find that such neural models, linked by a word or sensation, can be subconsciously "primed" to be more likely to activate than alternatives.

      For example, students are asked to assign personality traits to faces with neutral expressions. However, the researcher has a "priming" subterfuge; she meets each student to meet at a certain empty room, but she arrives with books in one arm and a coffee in the other hand. She asks the student to hold her coffee while she unlocks the door, then takes her coffee back and the student proceeds with the test, alone.

      The trick is,half the students hold a hot coffee, and half of them hold an iced coffee.

      The students that briefly held an iced coffee choose "cold" personality traits more often than the students that held a hot coffee, and those that held a hot coffee choose "warm" personality traits more often. For the same faces. They get primed.

      Of course, priming (and anti-priming; suppression of model activation) is happening constantly and pervasively in our brains, it makes sense as a mechanism to improve performance by reducing competition between what is likely many millions of models.

      But this leads us Qualia. The difference in humans is that when we see the color Red, we prime the many, many models that are linked to Red. For one, the sensation is linked to a word; "Red", which itself is linked to all kinds of models that suggest attention must be paid: Red Alert, Red Faced, anger, danger, blood. But also ripeness, sunsets, Holly and Christmas and Santa, probably thousands of models where Red figures prominently.

      These models are themselves often linked to emotions, good and bad. The point is, seeing Red creates a fundamentally different "brain state" than seeing "Sky Blue" or "Flat Black".

      That activation state is "qualia", what it is LIKE for me to see Red or you to see Red. It can be slightly different, my life experiences with Red are not exactly like yours, our cultures may differ in regard to the color Red. Certainly a parrot's qualia for Red would be much different than mine.

      But Qualia IS the difference between a brain "seeing red" and an instrument "detecting red". The instrument is not changed by the experience of detecting red, it has no neural models now primed to preferentially respond to subsequent inputs, or anti-primed to suppress their responses to subsequent inputs.

      I want to emphasize that Qualia have nothing to do with any supernatural rubbish. This is just how the brain actually works as a massively parallel system, with all models constantly processing clues so they can respond quickly, predict the immediate future in time to do something about it. Qualia is a survival mechanism.

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    2. Surely the problem is not with the process of detection, it is with the awareness of the detection. Is the photodetector aware that it detects a photon? I think that is why people use the word qualia – it is to emphasise the distinction between the physical act of detection and the subjective experience of what it feels like when one becomes aware of the detection.

      To take it a step further, I can imagine wiring a bunch of photodetectors to some pattern-recognition software and teaching it how to recognize an apple. But I can’t imagine how I would give that system the conscious experience of seeing an apple.

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    3. On can in principle rewire the brain and feed the signals of those photoreceptors to where the signals of photoreceptors detecting 400 nm wavelength light go and vice versa. This shows that the qualia for seeing red has to do with running a particular algorithm, not with the wavelength of the light.

      Another example. In the McGurk effect whether you hear "ba" of "fa" depends on what you see, not on the sound as detected by your ears:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0

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    4. The physicists have hijacked words like "red" to mean something complete different from their original meaning. They have a habit of doing this to words.

      A wavelength of light is not red, nor any other colour. Something that isn't conscious never registers actual colours, only wavelengths of light.

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    5. patfada: If you read my post (immediately above yours), the conscious experience of seeing an apple consists of all the neural models in your brain that incorporate "apple" or indeed the details of this particular apple (it's size, coloration, flaws), models that can include memories of events, emotions, philosophies, etc, all those thousands of models, being primed to respond and become part of your thinking.

      Because they are primed (a head start in firing) they will influence your stream of thoughts, your memories, your decisions.

      Qualia are pressures that help guide our thinking; akin to "prefetching" in computer science that can significantly speed up algorithmic performance.

      Prefetching is a guess, built into code or the chip, that algorithms and code tend to process data linearly, so if we process block X at memory, chances are good we will process block (X+1) in the near future, so if the bus isn't busy, we can save time by reading block (X+1) into the cache (which is 10+x faster than main memory). If we are wrong, no big deal, but every time we are right, we have saved time (sped up the code) by overlapping computation with reading. That's called instruction level parallelism, and qualia is a side effect of the massive parallel processing that brains depend upon.

      The brain processes the inputs of its environment, they prime (~prefetch) and inhibit neural models to respond or abstain, as a way of thinking faster. It may also boost performance by reducing contention amongst neural models (considering fewer inputs and reducing indecision).

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    6. I hate to break the news to you, but my phone can register the wavelength red and it will tell me that the color is red. Do I think my phone is conscious? No. But I do think you should use your brain a little more before commenting here.

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  17. Initial physical conditions lead usually to strong emergence of physical solutions for a system composed of constituants. many physical examples of strong emergence like strong emergence of wave behavior of a medium defined by boundary conditions. in the same manner, like any physical process, consciousness could be also a strong emergence of a sort of boundary conditions.

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  18. Sabine, you imply there are no bulk properties in conflict with the standard model, and while I am open to correction, I am unaware of any part of the standard model that predicts gravity. Am I wrong? If not, then would not gravity potentially qualify as strong emergence?

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    1. Ian,

      Yes, I am sorry, I was being sloppy. I should have said the standard model plus general relativity. Ie, the currently most fundamental laws of nature.

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  19. Can you throw some light on how Gravity can be emergent, if at all it is emergent?

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  20. Let us take up one thing Gravity and make it thread bare.

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  21. This comes up in zen. The way they explain this, the mind cannot observe itself. If it does then it disturbs its own observation. To observe itself the mind needs to treat itself as a separate thing, like my self. But then consciousness is measuring a construct of itself, not itself.

    It might be measurable by other consciousnesses, but they can't measure themselves either. It's also why some believe consciousness is unique like a measurement in quantum mechanics, a particle can be measured but it cannot measure itself.

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    1. The mind does not disturb its own observation, rather it separates itself as the superior fragment called the observer and the rest as the observed. But the observer is the observed. When the mind is separated as the observer and the observed there is no observation. Lets take fear, anger, jealousy. The mind separates as the superior fragment--there is no superior fragment--which looks at anger, fear or jealousy. How do we know? From the fact that we identify anger as anger. The moment you identify there is the identifier i.e., the observer and the identified which is anger or the observed. Could you identify anger as anger without knowledge of anger? No, you can't. So, the observer is knowledge, the past, all what he has gathered right from the moment of birth up until now i.e., the whole conditioning or programming be it religious, cultural, familial, ideological, prejudicial and the images he has created about himself and others. The whole of it is knowledge, the past, time, psychological time, is the constitution of the observer. And this observer looks at anger or a person and identifies anger as anger and a human as a Muslim or Hindu and then all the prejudices, images about Muslims and Hindus, for example, color the fact that we are human.

      The observer is anger, only he thinks that there is a superior entity called the observer who looks at anger and tries to control it. The observer is the past, and with that past knowledge he is looking at anger, and what ensues is conflict within as the observer separate from the observed. But you are anger, anger is you. The observer is the observed. The controller is the controller. That there is a observer separate from the observed or a controller separate from the controlled is an illusion.

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    2. If you want me too, we can go into this whole thing of observer is the observed. When the observer is separate from the observed is there observation, or is the observer an impediment to observation?

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    3. What is consciousness? Isn't it the sum total of all experience, the known? And is will ever free or is will nothing but the movement of the observer? Since you brought up Zen and philosophy, I am writing about consciousness. Your consciousness is the consiousness of mankind. So, what is it? The object of your fear is different from the object of my fear: I fear spiders you fear lizards, but fear is fear. Likewise, the object of your anger and jealousy is the different from the object of my anger and jealousy, right. But anger is anger and jealously is jealousy. So, human beings through out the world are fearful, anxious, angry, jealous, have sorrow, likes and dislikes, loneliness. The whole of that is consiousness. Your consiousness is the consiousness of mankind. That is why the sorrow of corona virus moves the consiousness of mankind. Christ and Mahatma Gandhi moved the consiousness of mankind.

      What is will? To understand will we must first understand what we mean by desire. You go window shopping, and you see a beautiful shirt in the display. There is sensation: the feel of the material, its texture, its color, its vibrancy... so far so good; there is only sensation. Then you imagine owning the shirt; you think how beautiful that shirt would be on you. Now, thought has stepped in. The moment thought steps in as ownership then desire is born. Sensation + thought is desire. You will a piece of land, you will success. Which means what? Will is desire. The one you desires, the one who wills is caught chasing object of his desire or will. Will can never be free, in that, it is always directional.

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    4. unless the self is a construction of the brain or mind, which can model entities, including itself...

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  22. I just have a simple question, (before leaving and keep writing the 125154 PhD application):

    Can we say that being alive is an strong emergent property?

    PD: Nice blog! Thanks for doing all of this material.

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  23. Hi Sabine, for the record, "What means emergent?" is an unconventional or even awkward usage of English. "What does emergent mean?" is conventional.

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    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for pointing out; I have changed this.

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  24. Hi Sabine, thanks for this post. Let me play the bad guy.

    Please: You tell me where the laws of physics and all free parameters and constants come from, and I may agree on the absence of strong emergence.

    Also, your statement about the strong emergence of consciousness: "there is absolutely no reason to think that this is the case". Well, here absence of reason for thinking is not absence of thought. How do you prove the existence of consciousness? How do you measure it?

    My own point of view: If the laws of physics include even a small bit of true randomness, then (absence of perfect determinism imply that) strong emergence can exist - and should emerge. In particular, even if life and consciousness are to emerge on earth based on the laws of physics, the form it takes will be strongly emergent. Because in this case there is a difference between "permitted by" and imposed by" the laws of physics.

    Best,
    J :)

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    1. akidbelle,

      You are not making sense to me, sorry. If you want to argue that consciousness does not exist, please be my guest. But I am pretty sure that most people would just conclude your definition of consciousness is rubbish.

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    2. Conscience, nomen sit omen, does exist also.

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  25. Guten Morgen Sabine,

    was mich am Thema Emergenz am meisten fasziniert ist: Wir haben keine Ahnung, wovon wir reden oder schreiben.
    Es gibz keine Theorie, wie
    - die Peano Axiome für die natürlichen Zahlen
    - oder die Galois-Theorie im Bereich der Algebra

    Sie erwähnen, dass man bei schwacher Emergenz die hervortretenden Eigenschaften "in Prinzip" aus den
    Elementen berechnen kann. Ja genau: "in Prinzip".
    Wir haben nämlich keine Ahnung, ob dies der einzige Weg ist, ob es ein guter oder ein umständlicher Weg ist.
    Es gibt kein Modell für Emergenz. Nur dieses ganze Gelabere.

    Vor einigen Monaten singen Sie sich den ganzen Frust mit Prof. Famous von der Seele.
    Hier gibt es mal etwas Neues, "unbekanntes Land".

    Sie haben es geschafft, sich von der eigenen Gruppe zu lösen.
    Sie müssen ziemlich clever sein.

    Viele Grüße aus dem sonnigen München
    Stefan

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  26. "there is not a single known example [of strong emergence] in the real world."

    We often forget that no universally accepted way to derive classical mechanics from quantum mechanics (i.e., to solve the quantum measurement problem) has been found yet, after almost one hundred years since the discovery of quantum mechanics. One can still hope that soon or later this problem will be solved, but for all we currently know classical mechanics is an evident example of strong emergence. For this reason I think that the claim that there is absolutely no reason to think that consciousness or free will could be strongly emergent phenomena is rather arbitrary.

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  27. logical -

    of or according to the rules of logic or formal argument.

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  28. Great article and explanation. It strikes me that we may have a system of strong emergence. We call it information. As far as we know information is measurable but it neither has mass or energy. Rather, it constrains actions of physical matter in order to be transmitted. DNA is an example. DNA carries information as a physical medium to transmit information but each component, even when acting in concert, has no such value, unless such value is imposed by the force of information.

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    1. Negate OPM: It's been shown that information and computation do take matter and energy. One can't do computation without using energy. All known computational devices are made of matter and use energy.

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  29. Isn't it premature to claim that consciousness, or qualia for that matter, are strongly emergent? If we understood how the brain works in detail (we aren't yet close) and still couldn't explain how consciousness works, then it would be reasonable to consider strong emergence. Though even then it is more likely that our premise (that we understand how the brain works in detail) is simply wrong.

    The biggest problem with a theory of consciousness is that we lack sufficient perspective for the scientific method to work properly. The property we seek to explain can only be observed in ourselves. There's no place we can stand that let's us view it objectively. All we can observe are the correlates of consciousness. Still, recognition of this situation doesn't justify giving it magical properties. Strong emergence is just the scientifically sanitized version of magic.

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    1. If you assemble lots of lego bricks together of all differing shapes, you'd be able to create lots of wonderful models. But would any of these models be conscious?

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    2. "Isn't it premature to claim that consciousness, or qualia for that matter, are strongly emergent?"
      Yes indeed. as far as I understand, the 3 main options in the philosophy of the mind are materialism, panpsychism and dualism.
      Materialism posits weak emergence from known physical laws, and as I have explained in previous comments I do not buy it. The 2 other options do not seem to require strong emergence either.

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  30. Ugh, Sabine, I have to hand it to you...you aren't afraid to step into minefields!

    Personally, I reject the dichotomy of strong versus weak emergence and to go further, I reject the concept of emergence in general. To say a phenomenon is emergent begs the question, emerging from what? The only possible answer in the real, natural world is, emerging from the behavior of constituent parts. The only meaning strong versus weak explanations could have is if the property is predictable or not, which is an epistemological question, not an ontological one, constrained by current knowledge and understanding.

    Far better, in my opinion, is to speak of system properties, or collective properties, rather than "emergent properties" which has this unhealthy, mystical connotation to it.

    Just my $0.02

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  31. The main message I got out of "More is Different" is that, although what we call strongly emergent phenomena are fully consistent with the principles of physics, they are not derivable from them. Examples of such emergent phenomena include the development of life out of chemical processes and the evolution of complex life out of simpler forms.

    If I give you all of physics and chemistry you wouldn't be able to predict the range of living organisms that we find in the world, or, I assume, even whether life would develop or not.

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    1. I am well aware that a lot of people would like this to be so, but it does not work because we already have a theory that describes chemical processes and life and also the development of life (provided you have an initial condition). Please look up the causal exclusion argument.

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    2. Agreed. But the evolution of the variety of living organisms in our world, although, as I said, it is completely consistent with the Standard Model, is not derivable from it. It operates on a separate set of mechanisms and principles including natural selection and others.

      It's not just statistical mechanics - PV = NRT.

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  32. “The prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation.” – coastal chart legend, U.S. Coast Guard.

    Sabine,

    The view that all phenomenon can be reduced to the constraints of the standard model makes the game of Twenty Questions much more difficult. In effect it means that the universe is reduced to the mineral category as a wholly mineral construct. The categories of vegetable and animal are disenfranchised, eliminated as wholly derivative of their mineral constituents. Is that actually the case?

    Are the standard model and the emergence of intrinsic causality in conjugative structures mutually incompatible?
    The standard model of Lego blocks can be consistently applied in the construction of myriad structures with their own dynamics and integral causal properties. Given one such structure, it is an observable that if you press on one point, another point responds accordingly. This is a causal rule integral to that structure. This structure may, in turn, become a building block of larger structures with their own new causal properties. The rules of the Lego standard model are not violated, but neither is causal validity their complex structures.

    The thesis that all phenomenon can be reduced to the causal constraints of the standard model is not ultimately useful in understanding the world in which we navigate on the macro level. It is however a necessary precept for the consistency of a superdeterministic world view. Hence the underlying angst of this discussion.

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  33. Well, even if you were able to monitor every (and I mean every) aspect of a brains electrochemical processes, you still wouldn't be able to determine if a belief produced in that brain were true or false. Those properties (being true or being false) are not deducible from the behaviour of elementary particles or electrical currents.

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  34. @Sabine.
    How would you prove that a phenomenon is strongly emergent? You would need to prove that it cannot be described in terms of a fundamental theory, say the SM+GR. But you can never really prove that. You can only say that you, and I, and all other scientists have SO FAR been unable to provide an explanation.

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    1. opa,

      I do not know why you say this. Of course you can prove that certain things are not derivable within a certain axiomatic framework, examples abound. It just happens to be the case that none of the known examples describes nature. In the theories that actually describe nature, the problem does -- for all we currently know -- not occur.

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  35. Does strong emergence mean that the phenomenon in question can only be recreated by creating an exact replica of the system and running it, or that the phenomenon is impossible to recreate even in this manner? The latter seems illogical to me - two mathematically identical systems must exhibit exactly the same behavior, and since there's probably no infinite regress of physical laws in nature, any physical system can in principle be simulated precisely by a sufficiently high-resolution model. And the former type of emergence seems to appear everywhere where the derivation can't be broken down further. What, for example, is the logic behind the glider in Conway's game of life? There isn't one. Its gliding behavior is simply what you get when you propagate it.

    Maybe the question is whether there are large primitive derivation steps - what if some of the neural networks created by evolutionary algorithms are impossible to break down into parts even in principle? It's hard to prove a negative though.

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  36. ||"For all we currently know, consciousness is weakly emergent"||

    Who's the "we"? Physicists perhaps, but they are mostly clueless.

    The unreflective view is that consciousness is supposed to come into being as the end consequence of material chains of causes and effects. Such causes and effects are cashed out completely in the form of processes that we can measure; namely particles with physical properties such as charge, momentum, spin and so on. Each link in the chain of causality follows as a direct result of these properties. But, at the end of such causal chains, we get a sudden abrupt change, a radical disconnect from these measurable processes to subjective experiences such as the greenness of grass, the warmth of love, the smell of roses and so on. These subjective experiences do not have physical properties, so we cannot, seemingly in principle, derive them from the prior physical causal chains.

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    1. I know that a lot of people seem to dislike this fact very much, but the brain is made of particles and physicists know what these particles do very well. Hence, they have a theory for the brain; end of story. If you want to invent something that is not contained in their theory already, you are claiming that particle physics are wrong. It's called the causal exclusion argument, please look it up.

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    2. Hi Sabine,

      Your response is a complete non-sequitur i.e it has nothing to do with what I said.

      I do not believe the brain produces consciousness at all. Consciousness is there all along, the brain only changes it in various ways. Much like eyeglasses change the acuity of our vision.

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    3. Of course they have physical properties. I love my wife. I cannot point to any particular structure or arrangement of neurons in my brain that constitutes loving my wife, or the feelings that I get sharing time with her, but -- kill all my neurons and I no longer love my wife. You don't have to kill the rest of me, just the neurons. My love for my wife DOES exist as an arrangement of neurons and connections in my brain; it is a physical thing. As is everything else about our personalities, beliefs, and proclivities.

      Denying that is to engage in supernatural hand-waving.

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    4. Then there is Roger Penrose ...

      :(

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    5. If you take LSD then that greenness of grass will look different. How do you explain that if there is supposed to be a disconnect?

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    6. Not sure how you know that killing neurons can destroy love. Is this the same logic as saying painting the lenses of my eyeglasses destroys my vision?

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  37. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    Very thought provoking piece and I find it very interesting how many of gone into the human existence/involvement to use as an example of strong emergence. It seems to me that this human conscious debate on strong verse weak emergence parallels the Anthropic Principle. If the Anthropic Principle is not valid, and the universe could have or would have existed without human involvement then logic would seem to dictate that human existence could at best be weakly emergent. Conversely, strong emergence of human existence would lend support to the Anthropic Principle. I am also thinking of Dr. Paul Davies recent book The Demon in the Machine. The question is not how did life begin, rather how did life become intelligence? Life was present in many forms but ultimately coalesced into our species and continued to move forward in time gaining more intelligence through experience and education. This too seems to me to be most consistent with weakly emergent.

    You stated “That’s because if you think that strong emergence can really happen, then this necessarily implies that there will be objects in this world whose behavior is in conflict with the standard model of particle physics.” Would the converse of this be true: If something is in conflict with the stand model of particle physics then it could be strongly emergent?

    My thoughts here go to what I hope you are still working on Dr. H, Dark Matter. To me there is zero evidence that dark matter has any relationship with the standard model. And, to go one step further, if dark matter is looked at as being strongly emergent and not associated with the standard model then we may actually gain knowledge in the understanding of the physics of our universe.

    Caveats, if we view the standard model as being incomplete, and given the amount of questions that exist I believe that it is, then additional understanding of the standard model could in fact lead to dark matter being weakly emergent. And, through an increased understanding of the physics of our universe we could also find that dark matter is weakly emergent.

    Just my thoughts on the matter, thanks again for the thought provoking topic.

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  38. Language is completely natural phenomenon. In is information acting and stored through physical media. This is true both for natural and artificial languages. Take for example the word "rabbit". It has phisical representation depending on media you use to communicate, but it has meaning as well. It is"strongly emergent" phenomenon, which has it's own history related both to science ( biology, physiology, physics) and to historical artifacts, accidents and just random events.
    Feel free to derive meaning of the word "rabbit" from standard model, even in as broad and vague terms as you can. Please remember that in different languages, the same animal is named completely different, so at least solutions you can get probably should be not unique...

    After that, please read something about Quine translation paradox.

    A lot of theoretical physicists fall into omnipotence state where they feel they can explain a lot more things they can in reality, in very certain statements. Reality is however much, much more complicated than we can realise...

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  39. If I may offer my view on the matter, essentially in support of Sabine's position:

    1. Emergence is not a process but a relationship between two different descriptions (discourses in philosophy-speak) of the same process.

    2. Emergence occurs when types of one description are not reducible to types of the other, even though individual tokens of that type are fully reducible. Take as an example, the Game of Life type of "spaceship". The behaviour of any given spaceship is fully reducible to the GoL rules. However, GoL is "Turing complete" and hence the type "spaceship" cannot be characterised within the discourse of GoL's rules. Thus tokens of the type "spaceship", i.e. a particular spaceship pattern, cannot be systematically deduced -- they can only be discovered. (It is an interesting question whether "Turing completeness" is a necessary ingredient of emergence!)

    3. Strong emergence effectively decrees not just types but also individual tokens (instantiations of a type) not to be translatable between the two discourses involved. Thus e.g. making the behaviour of GoL gliders not explicable by the underlying GoL rules. This would amount to the claim that GoL rules are a wrong "theory" of GoL.

    4. Applying this to the theory of mind (and effectively paraphrasing Donald Davidson's "Anomalous Monism"), one gets lack of translatability between the 1st person point of view discourse (one's immediate perception of oneself and the world around) and the 3rd person point of view discourse (the impersonal scientific description of the world, including human beings). The upshot being that causal explanations we offer for our thoughts and behaviour need not be in general reducible to the physicalist description of a human being -- without any mysterious "extra" required to account for the fact.

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  40. The issue of hard emergence is related to a philosophical question on how existence can emerge from nothingness. As A. J. Ayer said philosophy is largely a sort of word game, where we try to make sense of things based on purely linguistic terms. Wittgenstein in Tractus Logico-Philosophicus framed things according to how we can only use words effectively with things that are logically or empirically demonstrable. In a sense with nothingness we can aske the question, “Does nothingness exist?” If it exists, then it is not nothingness, and if it does not exist there is then no nothingness.” The Tao Te Ching makes a comparison with the question on what an empty vessel is. The quantum mechanical idea of the observable universe from the vacuum is not the emergence of a cosmos from a pure void of nothingness. Hence, a pure hard emergence of existence from nothingness is in a sense self-contradictory.

    There is I think a spectrum of emergence. A complete soft emergence is seen in fairly standard examples, such as the emergence of hardness of a material from atomic physics. In this spectrum as we make the emergence harder the problem becomes more difficult and maybe approaches the impossible. Physics faces two such tough emergent issues. The first is the emergence of spacetime from quantum mechanics. The second is how is it that Markovian statistics, or white noise, lead to the emergence of pink noise seen in biological systems. The first of these involves the generation of the observable universe, and the second is the emergence of life. Both of these are related in that a purely linear system of operators and states give rise to nonlinear dynamics that we often consider to be classical.

    I did not include consciousness. This is not because I don’t think there are deep questions there, but at this time the depth of these questions are beyond what I think we can reasonably work with.

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  41. In summary emergence is not a useful concept. Weak emergence is an inherent property of all scientific models, since the universe is made of multiple elements. Far more insightful is Kant's older approach which stated in modern terms, is that all our models of the universe and ourselves within it rest on concepts which must be taken as fundamental, or a priori, because they can not be constructed from anything else, and any argument about their validity or origin become circular. Such concepts include the notions of time, space, the laws of mathematics and logic, the notion of object, and all the specifics of interactions between objects. "Strong emergence" then implies that something fundamental is left of the list of priori notions, and must be added to account for observations. As you pointed out, this always remains a logical possibility, and moreover, has occurred periodically in the history of science. Hence, both the notions of "weak" and "strong" emergence have little utility. However, what you call "strong" emergence is most likely not what the authors of notion of emergence had in mind. The panpsychist for example argue that there must exist properties of self-awareness in all objects which we can not observe by any scientific experiment, that is they are inherently not observable, but still must be added to the list of a priori notions. They argue that this is necessary to account for their subjective experience. Even though I think this necessity is specious, it gets closer to Kant's motivation for making his arguments, which was that moral imperatives and notions of God, if valid, must be taken a priori. They can not be proven or disproven by logical argument. The existence of a priori moral imperatives or a notion of God from the viewpoint of science, must have observable consequences that can be traced to them. The problem has always been that anything we wish to add to the list of notions which do not have observable consequences is completely arbitrary.

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  42. All very interesting, but I leave it for Galen Strawson - who here uses the term 'kosher emergence' for (at least some kinds of) 'weak emergence' - to relate (non-emergent) consciousness to (*current*) physics:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FHLjHC-soU

    Galen Strawson: "What is the Meaning of 'Physical' (On the Silence of Physics)" | Talks at Google

    What is the silliest claim ever made in the history of humanity? The competition is fierce, but Professor Galen Strawson thinks the answer is easy: some people have denied the existence of consciousness - i.e. conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience, including the simple fact that "grass looks green".

    In this interactive Q&A session, Strawson tries to convince you that there is no conflict between a ‘hard-nosed’ physicalist/materialist/naturalistic scientific approach to the world and all-out belief in the reality of consciousness, conscious experience, good old fashioned qualia - whatever you want to call it or them; and further, that this is the right worldview given our evidence about the world.




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  43. Watsonians and Skinnerians long ago rejected any and all subjectivity because it simply wasn't observable in the same way that an experimental setting is observable, or the behavior of a test subject is observable. We could have a humanoid robot that goes "Ooo! and Ahhhhh! The flowers! The trees! The feel of the breeze upon my knees!" And it does this in all of the appropriate places. We might say, see, it FEELS things! It's conscious! But you can never verify that. But you might know its mechanism very well, even better than you know human neuroanatomy and function. At best you can say that the robot's observable internal mechanism produces behavior of the sort we associate with subjective experience. And that's it. But in the same way you can never verify that I have subjective experience and I can never verify that you have any subjective experience. If your brain is essentially like my brain, at best I can infer that it does what my brain does and that you have subjective experiences similar to mine. But it's always only an inference based on similarity of mechanism. But we can wonder why this subjective experience is even there. It seems to be unnecessary. The fact that it is there, as a side effect of some sort, perhaps, is completely mysterious. How much complexity is required to generate it? Is there a way to build an organism so that you don't have this complication? Would creatures with no subjective experience whatsoever, as blank inside as a typewriter, still go: Ahhhhh! Ohhhh! The flower! The trees! the kneeees!!! Of course I'm assuming that typewriters don't feel anything. Maybe they are very sad because nobody pounds on them anymore. Poor masochists! Now we pound on keyboards. Oh, my, that hurts so GOOD!

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  44. Yes, true. Then, interistingly, strong emergence appears as the physics countepart of undecidability in mathematics.
    Nevertheless, how would you distinguish strong emergence from merely needing to change the fundamental physical laws? I mean, if we discover a phenomenon that cannot be reduced (even in principle) to the standard model, then the most natural thing is just to modify the standard model. We change the fundamental laws or add a new postulate, so that the new phenomenon fits into the new theory. That's how physics has always worked when smth new was dscovered. At what point could you say: no, stop, this is strong emergence, and we cannot do anything about it?

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    1. Opamanfred,

      I don't think there is a good answer to the question "when stop looking for an explanation?" or at least I don't have one. But generally I think the best we can do is to work with the current scientific knowledge, according to which strong emergence just does not exist.

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  45. Meaning is a strongly emergent phenomenon.

    The rationale of any physical theory is a bounded region. It is a playing field upon which you need a uniform to play. That uniform is the requirement that any observable must be fitted with a unit of measure defined from within its existing system of units.

    The property of meaning is not recognized on the playing field of any physical theory. It is undefined. Shannon explicitly stated that his information metrics were restricted to the mechanisms of the communication channel and did not measure the significance of what was being conveyed. Yet, significance has physical consequence. A handful of red-spectrum photons can halt a loaded semi.

    There is no consistent method through which the extrapolation of the standard model can establish a direct, one-to-one connection between a physical event and the possible causal consequence of its metalevel meaning.

    I hope that one can address the significance of what is stated here rather than the inadequacies of its expression.

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    1. "Meaning is a strongly emergent phenomenon."

      It is amazing how many people come here and put forward beliefs as if they were facts.

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    2. Don Foster: At best, "meaning" is a weakly emergent phenomenon. I presume you are not talking about the meaning of an unfamiliar word, as in the title of this blog post ("what does 'emergent' mean), but "meaning" in the sense of symbolism (as in poetry), or meaning in the sense of longer term implications going forward; what an event "means" to our lives, what the current pandemic "means" to future international trade or travel.

      It is true that the latter sense of symbolism or non-immediate implications only seems to be found in humans. (Animals process short term implications: My dog barks to alert everyone when the stove timer goes off, it means food is coming.)

      But that kind of meaning is just a function of our unique human ability to process many layers of abstraction. i.e. abstractions of abstractions. Counting numbers are an abstraction, arithmetic an abstraction on top of that, real numbers, imaginary numbers, octonions, infinity, hierarchies of infinity, are all abstractions of abstractions.

      John and his bull Blackie can plow their field; in the abstract a man and a bull can plow a field, more abstractly a person guiding a power source can get "work" done in a field. "Work" is an abstraction, be it plowing, fertilizing, planting or harvesting. "Person" is an abstraction; man, woman, child, employee.

      This allows us (unlike other animals that cannot manage more than two levels of abstraction (maybe three in some animals like dolphins and elephants) to make detailed plans that extend indefinitely into the future. We have abstractions of time they don't have, abstractions of work and building they don't have. Even our complex language, which they don't have, is a reflection of our abstractive ability.

      Our mental ability to imagine ourselves and others years or decades into the future, and make plans to do things that far ahead, is unique in the animal kingdom. That doesn't make it magical, it probably is itself a weakly emergent property of how human brains are organized differently from other animal brains, or perhaps we have genetically coded neural structures they don't have. (It doesn't exist in every human; some are mentally disabled and cannot process many layers of abstractions.)

      But however our "unlimited abstraction" ability arises, "meaning" in the sense of symbolism or future implications is just a pedestrian consequence of it.

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  46. Can we run this argument in the reverse and say emergence is say,e.g. determining the behavior of a 1 micrometer sized particle from the laws of a macroparticle? If you follow this argument, quantum mechanics and its inherent randomness becomes an example of strong emergence.

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  47. To me a key point about emergence is the existence of different regimes, as is clear from the many branches of science, engineering and medicine. A simple example is the kinetic theory of gases where we can work with the emergent quantities of pressure, density and temperature. Indeed we can do the whole of meteorology and come up with a weather forecast without going anywhere near a wave function or quantum mechanics. Historically many of the branches of science were completely separate and it is only in the last few hundred years that we have arrived at a consistent whole. Sure all these different (and emergent) areas can be reduced back down to the standard model & general relativity. But, with the coronavirus pandemic, it is not going to be a research institute specialising in fundamental physics that comes up with the vaccine. So, thank goodness for emergence.

    Separately, I agree with other contributors that a case of strong emergence would not necessarily break the standard model, rather all it would probably show would be that the standard model is incomplete.

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  48. The central nervous system ("brain"?) of the nematode c.elegans has precisely 302 neurons.
    Can you or anyone answer if the worm is "conscious" based on Standard Model alone?
    Can you or anyone even predict or model its behavior based on Std Model?
    "in principle" and "in practice" are two different worlds.

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    1. No one has ever claimed that it is practical to use the standard model describe a brain, human or worm. This is entirely besides the point.

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  49. Dear Sabine,
    I am not sure anything to a physicist would ever be taken as strongly emergent. If something arose that could not be explained by its existing components (oh I dont know - the rotation of outer arms of galaxies or the rate of expansion of the universe), any self-respecting scientist would not hesitate to invent a new field or particle. The conciousness particle anyone?

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    1. If you think that our current theories do not explain the rotation of galaxies or the expansion of the universe you are looking at the wrong theories.

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  50. Sabine,

    "In physics the only type of emergence we have is weak emergence. With strong emergence philosophers refer to the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays a novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and the interactions of the constituents. While this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world".

    What are the "constituents" of a system with particles that are entangled with other particles outside the system, or which interacts with and is affected by entangled particles?

    It seems to me that you can't just sever a brain from the rest of the universe and determine its properties according to the brain's particles. One would also need to include any particle that could affect that brain through a sense organ PLUS any particle that in turn can affect THOSE particles. Pretty soon, you'd have a huge number of particles in the "system" (besides the brain)...determining something like "consciousness" or "will". Would you consider such a system to be an example of "weak" emergence or "strong" emergence?

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  51. Starlings murmurations seem to be strong emergences. Science is currently unable to explain the patterns of those starlings flying in swooping, and reduce the phenomenon two a weak emergence. Starlings murmurations remain a mystery.

    https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/04/506400719/video-swooping-starlings-in-murmuration?t=1586117851970

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    1. Just because scientists currently cannot explain X does not mean X is strongly emergence. What the heck makes you think starlings (out of all things) manage to produce something strongly emergent? Can you please prove that it cannot be weakly emergent?

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  52. Strong emergence refers to the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays a novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and the interactions of the constituents.

    With a non-linear physical law, like general relativity, it seems difficult to say precisely what it means for the behavior of a system with many constituents to be “derived from the properties and interactions of the constituents”. It’s different with Newton’s law, according to which the gravitational potential at any point in the vicinity of many particles is just the sum of the field contributions of the individual particles. This leads to a very straightforward concept of reductionism, i.e., there’s a clear sense in which the behavior of the aggregate is reducible to the properties of the individual constituents and their pairwise interactions. But due to the non-linearity of general relativity, the solution of the field equations for an aggregate of particles isn’t the simple sum of the fields for the individual constituents. We can’t even localize gravitational energy, so at the very least it requires a more sophisticated definition of reductionism. When people assert the absence of strong emergence in the context of a non-linear law, I think they are in effect just asserting that the non-linear law is complete, meaning that every law-like aspect of the behavior of any system, no matter how large or complex, is entailed by that law. This is different from saying the behavior of aggregates is derivable from the behavior of constituents, which doesn’t have a simple meaning for a non-linear law.

    Strong emergence is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature.

    If we already know that our current laws of physics are complete, then yes, by definition there is nothing else, but of course we don’t (and can’t ever) know that. We might instead say something like “Although we cannot currently explain (let alone predict) most of what we observe and experience in life (why did this happen rather than that?), we currently know of nothing that conclusively refutes the hypothesis that everything there is to rationally understand about natural phenomena is, in principle, entailed by the currently known fundamental physical laws”.

    … if you think that strong emergence can really happen, then this necessarily implies that there will be objects in this world whose behavior is in conflict with the standard model of particle physics plus general relativity.

    One could argue that general relativity and the standard model are already “in conflict” with each other. In any case, it’s true that the existence of some currently unknown non-linearities or higher-order terms would conflict with a theory that lacks those terms, but there might be no effective conflict for separate regimes. For example, a set of measure zero of selected particle decay times could guide the large scale course of events, even though this wouldn’t upset the reductionist statistical averages and expected values.

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  53. Sabine,

    While I understand your point that weak emergence is when you can, at least in principle, derive the behavior of a complex system from its constituents, and strong emergence is when it is not possible, I question whether "strong emergence is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature". For example, imagine that to calculate some emergent behavior one has to solve an ill-posed problem, such as the heat equation in reverse. As you had mentioned a time or two before, there are situations where even infinite precision calculations only give you a finite prediction time. Doesn't it seem to you perfectly compatible with "the laws of nature"?

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    1. Sergei,

      There could in principle, theoretically, be natural systems which display strong emergence. But we do not currently have reason to think that these actually exist in the real world. This is what I mean when I say it is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature.

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  54. I just read your article in Nautilus about superdeterminism in which you discuss "universal relatedness". That's basically what I was referring to in my previous comment. If that idea is correct, then there would be information that is not contained in the constituents of the "system"; and the "system" could have strongly emergent properties.

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  55. The basic survival-level content of consciousness has always been information about oneself in relation to the rest of the world. E.g. to open a door or sit down on a chair one needs information about oneself in relation to these objects; and similarly, one needs information about oneself in relation to any immediate dangers in the environment e.g. a snake or a tiger.

    This information about self in relation to the rest of the world is not essentially different to the information that seems to exist from the point of view of a particle (or an atom or a molecule), except that the information that seems to exist from the point of view of a particle can only be fundamental-level categories of information like mass or momentum.

    So, nothing entirely new emerged when living things arrived on the scene. There was no “strong emergence” of consciousness when living things arrived on the scene because basic consciousness is nothing but point-of-view information.

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    1. Your point-of-view information is different from my point-of-view information, but they are point-of-view information. The point-of-view forming mechanism is consciousness.

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    2. Your framework of experience is different from my framework of experience but framework is framework. The framework is consiousness.

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    3. Thank you Ford, point-of-view information is very interesting.

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    4. Scientific framework and mathematical framework are not the only frameworks that describe reality. An alien will have his own point-of-view framework or world-view framework to describe a reality. It is the framework that determines reality.

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    5. One such framework is "the self", the sum total of all one's experience and knowledge right from birth up until the present moment. Just like freewill we can ask is reality free of "the self". For example, if I am programmed as a Hindu then I have an image about Muslims. That image becomes a part of the framework. Then when a person, a simple human passes by with a "Gullah" and "a beard" counting beads, then I first identify him as a Muslim and then the images I have about him i.e., the prejudices color the fact that he is just another human. The framework in action which describes a simple human and defines a reality. And we all know that this is dangerous because it leads to conflict like racist violence etc. Similarly, the Muslim defines a reality based on his framework when he sees me. Just an example.

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    6. What happens when I annihilate the framework? What happens to reality? Can I describe? Can I interpret? Physics and mathematics themselves are frameworks; what happens when I annihilate the frameworks? For example, divide by Zero is what? There lies the measurement problem.

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    7. What happens to the Muslim, when I annihilate the Hindu Framework? Is there any longer the Muslim?

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    8. Muslim is the virtue of the Hindu framework, isn't it?

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    9. By Hindu-Framework, I mean the psychological framework. We have been discussing the psyche so far. The contents of consiousness is consiousness itself. What happens when I empty the contents of consiousness?

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  56. Couldnt you interpret QM as strongly emergent from classical mechanics? Emergence could run agnostic of direction.

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  57. Well, it's clear that sometimes nothing intelligent emerges from a discussion in a group with a dozen, seemingly intelligent constituents.

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    1. But antoneo, neo, weristdas will say that this is not social justice. They are from this part of the world you see.

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    2. well antoneo, neo, and weristdas must be missing yanakava.

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  58. Thanks for this. It’s a fascinating topic.

    I’d agree that there isn’t any clear and uncontroversial example of ‘strong emergence’, certainly not that is particularly relevant to a discussion of the philosophy of physics. More broadly, depending on your point of view, I’d say that ethical or aesthetic properties could be argued to be strongly emergent but this depends on one’s broader view of the status and nature of these types of properties (i.e. are they properties of the world at all!). If you thought that there such properties and that they were properties of the world itself, not of, e.g., our perceptions of it, then I think that these properties could be things that are strongly emergent. I’m also not sure that their being so would put them in contradiction with fundamental physics, the standard model etc.

    I suspect that if one really gets into the detail there is some question-begging going on here – essentially any property or entity that is ‘strongly emergent’ will also be very different to those properties/entities typically discussed by contemporary physics (as in the case of aesthetic properties or whatever) and a naturalistic approach will probably lead one to deny that these are valid properties at all. Ergo from such a perspective one is likely to conclude that there is no such thing as a strongly emergent property, because you’ve tacitly assumed it.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I am on the fence as to whether there are such properties or not. But if there are I think it’s quite likely that they are methodologically inaccessible to physics by virtue of the same characteristics that make them strongly emergent.

    PS Consciousness, qualia etc., are the obvious examples of strong emergence but clearly these are in no sense clear or uncontroversial – they are murky and highly contested!

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    1. Rollo, to say that consciousness is an example of strong emergence seems to confuse our lack of understanding how the brain works for in-principle strong emergence. Something isn't strongly emergent just because we don't yet understand how it can be derived from lower level physical laws. To prove that it is strongly emergent, one would have to bring much more to the argument.

      (Yes, I know many commenters here have made this argument, including our host, but it seems just as many ignore it.)

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  59. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    You hit the mother lode with this topic, 180+ comments and still growing. I am really fascinated by the discussion of human consciousness as being associated with concepts of physics. So to me this begs the question;

    Is string theory or any other theory of everything also going to have to be able to mathematically model or answer how consciousness grows and/or comes into being?

    And, is consciousness also going to happen down at the Planck length?

    Forgive me, this last question really was not necessary, but there are time I just cannot resist.

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  60. I must admit I am having trouble seeing what all the fuss is about. Complex systems result in behaviours that can be different to those of the constituent parts. We may or may not have the models, inputs or computing capacity to derive the new behaviour. We call this 'emergence'. If we believe this new behaviour is understandable in terms of cause and effect, then it is weak emergence. If we believe it will never be understandable in terms of cause and effect, then it is akin to magic.

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