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The Heart of the Matter
Everything we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is the result of interactions between our bodies and the physical world. Any relationship we have with other people involves some kind of social interaction with them. History is basically an ongoing story of our collective social interactions. The evolution of every species of life on the planet is the result of long-term, large-scale biological interactions. From grains of sands to galaxies of stars, everything composed of physical matter is the product of emergent interaction. We could even say that everything IS an interaction.

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It’s mind-blowing just trying to think about all that interaction. Fortunately for our minds, our awareness of interactions is limited. The world is full of interactions we don’t perceive because we lack the necessary senses. Even the senses we do have are only sensitive enough to perceive relatively small ranges of interaction. Our direct experiences are poor representations of the wealth of interaction that is always happening all around us.

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We don’t need to get too philosophical about any of this, but we do want to put things in the right context. In a reality that is incomprehensibly interactive, even the things that seem simple are nonetheless infinitely complex. Using simplified terms like patterns and levels and systems requires us to be mindful that these words are deceptively small containers with infinite space inside.

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Part of the Process
Emergence is often related to the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This idea is true in many ways, but there are also different ways of understanding what it means for one thing to be part of another. With emergence, it is necessary to change how we generally think about part-whole relationships.

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In our everyday lives, we use the noun, “part,” to refer to a wide range of part-whole relationships. A slice is part of a pie. The filling can be part of a pie as well. Even its ingredients could be considered part of a pie. Usually, though, the best part of a pie is how it tastes.

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To understand emergence, we need to think of parts in a specific way. Normally, when we think of part-whole relationships, we’re imagining some sort of jigsaw puzzle. The parts are like puzzle pieces we put together to form the whole picture. Emergence is a special kind of puzzle in which the pieces aren’t physical shapes but rather forms of interaction.

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Parts can be organized into three patterns of interaction: independent, dependent, and interdependent. What independent interactions are individual parts involved in? What dependent interactions are happening between parts? What interdependent interactions are happening among all of the parts? These patterns are the puzzle pieces from which a picture emerges.

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Patterns help us organize interactions. Just as parts can be integrated into wholes, patterns of interaction can be integrated into more complex patterns of interaction. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s a lot of interaction, which tends to get messy both literally and figuratively. That’s where levels come in.

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The Cause in the Effect
In emergence, the part-whole relationship is one of cause and effect. Parts are the cause and wholes are their effects. Levels are a way of organizing these cause and effect relationships among interactions.

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Most examples of cause and effect are described in terms of linear or sequentially ordered steps of time. In these examples, cause and effect happen one after the other. To say that A causes B implies that A happened first and then B happened next. The first car suddenly slows down, and the effect is that the second car crashes into the first. It’s a simple and literally straightforward perspective of cause and effect.

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Instead of a strictly linear view of causality, emergence involves a type of cause and effect that happens synchronously but at different levels. These levels differentiate between the scale of the parts and the scale of the whole. Although we may only perceive the resulting changes over time, the causes and their effects aren’t related through time, they’re related through scale / space / size. What happens at the smaller scale of the parts (A) simultaneously causes something to come into being on the bigger scale of the whole (B). As hundreds of individual cars slow down, they collectively cause a traffic jam.

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Linear / sequential cause and effect is like listening to the sound of an individual instrument. We hear the music as one note after another. Multi-scale / synchronous cause and effect is like listening to the simultaneous sounds of multiple instruments. There’s a linear progression, but the music we hear emerges all at once from the interactions of notes. Even though the music would not exist without the individual sounds, it also exhibits qualities or characteristics or a life of its own at a level beyond them.

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PARTING THOUGHTSimg_1112With both the traffic and music examples, it’s important to remember that the focus of emergence is on interaction. In the traffic example, the part and whole relationship isn’t cars and traffic, it’s cars-slowing-down and traffic. Similarly, in the music example, the parts aren’t the instruments, they’re the instruments-making-sounds. Even going back to our pie example, how the ingredients make a pie is not an example of emergence, but the behavior of molecules (from the ingredients) manifesting as a pie is.

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From Little Acorns
For our working definition, emergence is a dynamic, multi-scale process in which interactions-as-parts cause/effect new and qualitatively different wholes that include but transcend the parts themselves. That’s it, in a nutshell.

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Patterns are a way of looking at the independent, dependent, and interdependent interactions which function as the parts. Levels are a way of looking at the various scales of parts and wholes. In trying to conceptualize the framework, it can be helpful — although somewhat misleading — to imagine patterns and levels as horizontal and vertical dimensions of interaction, respectively.

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A NEW FRAME OF MINDimg_1120We now have a theoretical framework for describing emergent systems. Its key features — interaction, patterns, and levels — illustrate the basics of an emergent systems perspective. They are our essential tools for outlining an emergent cognition framework.