147 Reflections of #ELSI2019 Symposium

Reflections of #ELSI2019 Symposium

By Marc Kaufman, ELSI


Credit: T. Heenatigala/ELSI

The 7th ELSI symposium ended as it began - with a reference to gin and tonic as a most familiar exemplar of the phenomenon of "emergence." But since this final meeting took place in the Agora and was on the casual side, actual gin and tonic were present help the discussion emerge.

The original question asked by the symposium was how emergence - the gradual or perhaps sudden appearance of novel, surprising and more complex traits, processes or phenomena derived from more simple parts - factored into the work of the numerous domains of science represented at the meeting.

And as a corollary, could and should the more abstracted concept of emergence be a more commonly used tool in science?

For a gathering that began with some considerable confusion and disagreement about what the term meant for different fields of science, it ended with far more of a sense of possibility or at least comraderies.

But still, it was apparent that the word, the concept, of emergence, meant many different things to scientists in different disciplines.

For computational and artificial life researchers, as well as philosophers, it has a clear and valuable meaning. In fact, in the artificial life field the questions being asked now often involve whether researchers can take the models of emergence they create digitally and make them into "living" things.

For the planetary scientists and astrophysicists, the chemists and the biologists at the gathering, however, emergence made sense in specific instances but was a far less comfortable idea in its abstract form.

Yes, the formation of stars and planets are emergent phenomena, as is the bonding of hydrogen and oxygen to form water. But does their emergence have anything to do with the computationally well-studied emergent properties of flocks of birds or schools of fish.

The general consensus was that differences were both inevitable and, as ELSI Executive Director Mary Voytek put it at the beginning of the final panel discussion, that's just fine.

The lively discussion began with some history that put some of the challenges of the four-day symposium into context.

As described by Luis Campos, a historian of science at the University of Mexico, the concept of emergence has been with humans at least back to the Greeks, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries became a formal and powerful part of the scientific discussion. Much of that discussion of emergence revolved around the question of how life began, but it went beyond that.

One of the features of an emergent phenomenon is often that the result is a surprise, and Campos delivered one of those surprises at the panel. Nineteenth and 20th century emergence flowed in some significant part from the dialectical thinking of Georg Hegel and then as advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx of course took that idea into the political realm while Engels went more into the naturalist world.

Hegel famously described how thesis and anthesis interact (or compete) and in the process form a new and higher synthesis. Rather like the simplicity-into-complexity and self-organization dynamics that characterize discussions of emergence today.

The days of that early flowering of emergent thinking were cut short by the growth and gradual triumph of reductionism - the proposition that scientific experimentation and theory can thoroughly explain characteristics and processes by breaking them down to their component parts.

But the short-comings of pure reductionist thinking in science were then laid bare by Karyn Rogers, a geochemist and geomicrobiologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While she said she had struggled during the symposium with the word emergence - she preferred "smudginess" - her science had led her away from straight-forward explanations of complex phenomena.

She started by saying the term "origin of life" is flawed because, as most in the room would agree, there is no reason to think there was a single origin. Then she took on the phrase "origins of life" because she found that far too restrictive as well.

So the beginnings of life, she said, was not a singular process but involved an entire ecology of minerals, chemicals, atmospheric conditions and more. Thus the "smudginess." So many factors went into producing life (or earlier proto-life), she said, that the surroundings were as determinative as the abiotic-to-biotic evolution that occurred. Hard to find an "origin" in that!

(As ELSI Principal Investigator Irena Mamajanov described to the group, this kind of thinking is very much part of the ELSI approach. Her origins work with ELSI colleague assistant professor Nathaniel Virgo, and others has taken on the name of "messy chemistry," but she told Rogers that "smudginess" worked for her too.)

The third panelist, theoretical physicist and astrobiologist Sara Walker from Arizona State University, who leads a research team named EMERGENCE @ASU, focused on the complicated issue of objectivity and subjectivity in emergence. In other words, is emergence a process that takes place innately in nature, or is it subjectively perceived a certain way by us observers?

She said that the symposium had also gotten her to think a lot about the "boundaries of our knowledge." Does the presence of new technological and intellectual tools allow us to understand emergent phenomena that we didn't earlier recognize were even there? And if so, the question arises of how much of our ability to recognize emergence is due to our current - subjective - state of knowledge, and whether we will in the future understand the same emergent processes or different ones as we change as a species (for example, if we evolve to silicon-based life)?

During the panel discussion, the issue came up as to what the word "emergence" would be in Japanese. There appeared to be no consensus and it appeared that the concept did not resonate as much with Japanese scientists as with others. (A prominent exception present was Takashi Ikegami, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an international leader in the fields of artificial life and complexity studies.)

After the gathering broke up, I asked ELSI research scientist Keiko Hamano, who specializes in planet system science and magma oceans on recently-formed planets, what she made of the conference. She said she found it most interesting and very different from a typical Japanese science conference.

"We present our science papers and discuss them," she said. "Meeting to talk about one word and its meaning to scientists is a very different approach. I think it is interesting but, yes, very different for us."


Credit: T. Heenatigala/ELSI