Sunday, August 12, 2012

Miracles Emergent

The facts:

Sunrise on Lake Huron.  

I am not a morning person.  Never have been.     I have tried to shift my internal clock to better accommodate the demands of my working life, but except when I am assisted by jet lag, I can’t seem to do so.  I tend to stay up too late and am sleepy in the morning.  For me, mornings are bad.

I have never enjoyed running.  I have tried many times to develop a more amicable relationship with the sport, but it is just not my thing.  For me, running is bad.

But, strangely enough,

Running at 6:30 in the morning is glorious. 

I get up, run in the cool morning air accompanied by the ever goofy ZigZag and I love it.  Not only that, I feel great all day long.

Huh?  Say what?

It’s like a miracle.

I have often remarked that as a scientist, I don’t believe in magic, but that I do believe in miracles.  After making such a remark, I deftly avoid further discussion of what constitutes a miracle, although a backwards look through this blog provides a few hints.  For instance, I talked about the miracle of how ordinary rhythms and rituals ground us and help keep us centered.  I also talked about the miracle of how a a couple of regular people can create a  new and perfect child and how a mass of undifferentiated cells somehow becomes a highly organized living organism.  I was talking about human life, but really, earthworms are pretty miraculous too, when you stop to think about it. 

Another time I wrote about the miracle of contentedness that I feel on a summer day, like today.  I feel an overwhelming sense of  well-being while sitting on the back deck, fresh brewed coffee in hand, dog and cat asleep in the sun, flowers in bloom, with birds at the feeders.  Conversely, when the weather is awful-- bitter cold, driving rains, or blistering heat-- when I would not want to be outside for very long, even though I love being outside, I look around my warm and comfortable home and am glad for the miracle of a safe and secure life.  I am very aware that for most of the world’s people, this miracle is beyond reach.   I feel both grateful and a little guilty for the miracle of my good fortune. 

I see miracles in the generosity of people who volunteer their time or other resources selflessly to help others.  I think about inner city after school programs,  community food banks and so on, often run by people who simply want to make things better for others.    I think it is a miracle when, in the face of all the things that could go wrong, things go right.  I think it is a miracle that there is life, joy, satisfaction, and happiness because there is no guarantee that those things have to exist.

I have another definition of miracle that is perhaps somewhat related, but not directly.  This is when things combine in unpredicted and unpredictable ways to create something new and radically different.  I learned recently that this idea has another name—strong emergence.  The idea is that the whole is not only greater than the sum of the parts, it is fundamentally different than the sum of the parts.

The concept of strong emergence is not accepted in the sciences; it is seen as too magical and is contrary to the premise that the physical world behaves predictably, at least on the large scale.  Science relies on the idea that we can observe, understand, and predict the workings of the universe.  (To any scientists reading this, I am not forgetting the indeterminacy of quantum physics, but rather thinking on a macroscopic scale).  Scientists fundamentally believe that if we know enough about the parts, we can predict the outcome of their interactions at least statistically.  I think that in the realms of the physical universe that is true.  For example, the properties of water ARE predictable from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen even though water has little in common with its constituents.   Certainly, it would have been difficult and even unlikely for scientists to predict, a priori, the properties of water from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen.  But difficult or not,  it COULD have been done and in hindsight, it is clear how water’s properties emerge from those of hydrogen and oxygen.   When things get much more complex, like biological systems, it seems impossible to predict how the same building blocks could lead to the known diversity of life.  But, I don’t think it’s impossible.  Impossibly difficult maybe, but not theoretically impossible.   

Where the idea of strong emergence feels right to me is in the area of human perception and creativity.  In the prologue to this excellent biography of Richard Feynman, titled “Genius,”  James Gleick quotes Mark Kac, a Polish mathematician, who worked with Feynman in the early 1960’s.

"There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians… Even after we understand what they have done,  the process by which they have done it, is completely dark. Richard Feynman was a magician of the highest order.

Kac calls this magic; I call it a miracle.  Epistemologists call it strong emergence.  Whatever, it is the unpredictable, non-understandable, emergence of something radically new.  The ideas don’t come out of a vacuum, but the type II genius, the ‘magician,’ draws connections in ways that no one else can.  It is the difference between mere excellence, to which many can aspire with ordinary talent and extraordinary hard work and the miracle of real genius. 

The miracle of strong emergence creates soul-nourishing awe from the mere pile of rocks and pool of water that are Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, especially if you are there to breathe the sweet air and feel the warm sunshine.

And, strong emergence is at play when a no-good-awful-sport like running at a terrible-horrible-miserable time of day like early morning combine to create a splendid experience.

It kind of makes me wonder if parsnips and liver might be tasty when combined together.

Nah.  There are limits!

Today I am grateful for the sunshine after a lot of badly needed rain.  I was glad for the rain, but my mood soared today when the sun came back out.

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