When discussing free will, people quite often refer to it as an emergent property. Emergence is described by Wikipedia as an entity having properties its parts do not have, due to interactions among the parts. This is fair enough. Sure, humans behave differently to molecules that make up the body; but so what? The assembled car can behave differently to its parts disassembled lying on the ground. An autonomously driven car behaves differently than an ordinary car without a driver. The first and second laws of thermodynamics are still in place, nothing magically has been changed as far as we can tell.
So, is this so called emergence a recognizable pattern of behaviour that is more complex than its component parts? But is it more free? The double pendulum might be considered freer than the regular pendulum shown initially in the video below. Which is the emergent property, the constrained single pendulum swinging regularly with the pin or swinging chaotically when the pin is removed?
What happened here? A highly ordered system went from being a metronome that can be easily be predicted to a chaotic pendulum whose motions can only predicted depending on the accuracy of the model and the accuracy of the initial input data. Effectively it is a simpler version of trying to predict next month’s weather on a certain day.
Snowflakes are another classical example of emergence. Here we have vapourized water molecules crystallizing on a surface (deposition). The water molecules are moving around chaotically in the air and because the atmosphere is more or less uniform around the growing flake, an approximately symmetrical D6 crystal is formed. Sure the snow crystal is more complex, but ultimately the behaviour of the system was completely constrained. Is the crystal more free than the water vapour? Why do we think that processes like crystallization can lead to more freedom?
Synergism while as a phenomenon it clearly exists. But what is it? A classical example, for me, in the metallurgical field, is with the extraction of copper from solution. Alpha-hydroximes are moderate to weak extractants (complexing agents) for copper. Organo-phosphates are also weak extractants, but a combination of the two produces a very strong extractant for copper, much more than would be expected from their individual contributions. In this synergic mixture the hydroxyoxime still chelates with the copper, but the organo-phosphate now coordinates the hydroxyoxime-copper chelate instead of trying to complex the copper ion.
Is this magic? Plainly no, as no thermodynamic laws have been broken here. So, what happened? Well, we were applying a simplified model of our expectations to a more complex system. Quite often we have religious people (and others) saying that a motor car is more than the sum of the parts. Well this may very well be true, but it does depend on what ‘expectations’ model we are comparing it to. Complex systems can (not always) behave more complexly giving us a bigger bang than expected or they can behave antagonistically (opposite of synergism). There is no freedom here, but we might describe it as an emergent property.
The two up and one down quarks, make one proton (although it is more complicated than that). While the behaviour of the proton is reproducible and different from that of the three quarks and can be considered emergent, so what?
There is an interesting paper here describes how Newton’s theories of gravity can be derived from first principles; I won’t pretend to understand it, but it is interesting nevertheless. The paper is peppered with references to emergent and emergence. Emergence can be predicted from first principles or from equations? Really?
And speaking of gravity, a while back on Greg’s https://naturereligionconnection.org/blogs/ blog he had picture of some billiard balls and the caption said something to the effect that billiard balls can exist without interacting with each other. This, I think, is an inaccurate statement and immediately reminded me of the high school torsion balance experiment. I can still remember the hairs on the back of neck standing up when I saw this.
The video shows gravitational forces, objects interacting laterally. We don’t see the billiard balls pull together on a billiard table because the gravitational forces are not strong enough to overcome the frictional resistance of the table. If those balls found themselves in deep space, they would attract one another and could not be considered independent. But here on the billiard ball table we can safely ignore their dependent existence because the other forces playing on them are much greater.
When we did this experiment in high school it was one of the magical moments when the wonders of science transcended our experience. From a couple simple experiments using the torsion balance and an experiment measuring the acceleration due gravity, we could estimate the mass of the Earth using Newton’s equations.
In short, when we talk about emergent phenomena especially with respect to free will, there seem to be two broad meanings we associate with the word emergent. A weak and a strong meaning:
- Weak Emergence: here we use a it as a shorthand for a set of prior phenomena combining to give a reproducible behaviour.
- Strong Emergence: this is almost akin to magic, where the new property or phenomenon is almost inexplicable.
I am happy with the first sense of the word, but not the second. The first sense does not help the concept of free will one iota.