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Emergence Is Real, but It Can’t Replace Information

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Without doubt, you can watch some pretty amazing things emerge in nature by a combination oflaw and chance. A snowflake is a classic example.

The binding properties of the water molecule dictate what angles are permissible, and then the crystal’s chance path through the cloud accounts for the unique result: a six-sided marvel that looks like a work of art. But you won’t see snowflakes spell out "John loves Mary" — that kind of purposeful communication requires more than natural law and chance. It requires information. This is the subject of William Dembski’s new book, Being as Communion.

Because they reject information as a fundamental property of the universe, materialists tend to overplay emergence as a creative force. A good example is an article on The Conversation by Andy Martin and Kristian Helmerson of Monash University, "Emergence: The Remarkable Simplicity of Complexity." They see no difference between a snowflake and a cell:

From the fractal patterns of snowflakes to cellular lifeforms, our universe is full of complex phenomena — but how does this complexity arise?

"Emergence" describes the ability of individual components of a large system to work together to give rise to dramatic and diverse behaviour. (Emphasis added.)

They briefly admit that emergence is "Unlike music from an orchestra led by the conductor," but fail to honor the intelligent minds that wrote the symphony and interpreted the symbols on the printed pages. Instead, they envision a kind of spontaneous music: "emergent behaviour arises spontaneously due to (often simple) interactions of the constituent parts with each other and the surrounding environment." They should consider what instruments rattling on stage in an earthquake would sound like.

Martin and Helmerson present examples of emergent phenomena that, due to complex interactions, are "greater than the sum of their parts." What they fail to point out is that the "cellular automata" of flagellated bacteria in a vortex, or honeybees in a hive, or patterns made by a school of fish, are dependent on information coded in genes — not just the objects and the environment. A school of dead fish may self-organize in a whirlpool, but they will never show the responsive patterns of living fish. Yet these two authors fail to make any distinction between life and non-life.

Consider an ant colony. In the absence of centralised decision making, ant colonies exhibit complex, problem solving behaviour. This behaviour emerges from the reaction of individual ants to simple chemical stimuli — from larvae, other ants, intruders, food and waste.

In turn, each ant produces chemical signals, providing a stimulus that other ants respond to. From simple interactions leading to self-organisation, ant colonies have demonstrated the ability to collectively solve geometric problems, such as optimising their foraging route to and from food resources.

This happens, though, because of the information coded within each ant. Spray the ants with Raid and they will stop collectively solving geometric problems.

There needs to be a differentiation made between the emergent properties of information-coded things (like cells, robots, or ants) and the emergent properties of dead things. They go on:

The idea of emergence, though, isn’t confined to biological systems. It pervades all areas of science and is a manifestation of other complex interacting systems in our daily lives, such as stock markets, the connectivity of the internet, and traffic flow.

In fact one can argue that the richness of the world around us emerges from the complex behaviour of many interacting components. As elegantly stated by the German scientist and engineer Jochen Fromm:

one water molecule is not fluid
�one gold atom is not metallic
�one neuron is not conscious
�one amino acid is not alive

In physics, magnetism of everyday materials emerges from the spontaneous alignment of the magnetic moment of billions of electrons.

Similarly, phenomena such as superconductivity and superfluidity emerge from the cooperative flow of electrons and atoms, respectively, at temperatures close to absolute zero (-273C). On a much larger scale, the structure of the universe emerges from the gravitational attraction of stars.

They move seamlessly from chemistry to biology:

In chemistry, many atoms combine to form macromolecules with structures that emerge from the secondary interaction of the atoms, which determines their function in molecular biology. In turn, cells emerge from the interaction of many of these macromolecules — resulting in cell biology.

If Martin and Helmerson really think that life emerges spontaneously from the parts, some should challenge them to perform an experiment suggested by Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Wells: put a living cell in a test tube and poke a hole in it. Let all the parts leak out. Will a living cell spontaneously emerge again? Why not? All the parts are there, in the right proportions, because they were once alive. Will "molecular biology" emerge if a stirring device is added?

Another example of such thinking can be seen in a news item from the University of Warwick, "Self-assembling anti-cancer molecules created in minutes." What’s wrong with this trick?

"The chemistry involved is like throwing Lego blocks into a bag, giving them a shake, and finding that you made a model of the Death Star," says Professor Scott.

The answer is in the next sentence. A great deal of complex specified information was snuck into the bag:

"The design to achieve that takes some thought and computing power, but once you’ve worked it out the method can be used to make a lot of complicated molecular objects."

They describe the laboratory technique they designed to insure that the parts assemble according to their predetermined plan. "It’s all thermodynamically downhill," Professor Scott says. "The assembly instructions are encoded in the chemicals themselves." Correct. There’s the information.

But right after that, Professor Peter Scott makes the same mistake Martin and Helmerson make, thinking that life does this without similar intelligent design:

"In practical terms, the chemistry is pretty conventional. The beauty is that these big molecules assemble themselves. Nature uses this kind of self-assembly to make complex asymmetric molecules like proteins all the time, but doing it artificially is a major challenge."

If it required brain power and computing power to encode the "assembly instructions" in their self-assembling molecules, then it only makes sense that "nature" used intelligent causes to encode assembly instructions in proteins. (Note that their resulting molecules are vastly simpler than proteins.) Proteins may "self-assemble" and fold in a "thermodynamically downhill" process, for sure, but they only do so because the sequence of amino acids is rich with complex specified information.

Intelligence can also drive things thermodynamically uphill. Salt would normally diffuse into a salmon’s gills by osmosis (natural law), but there are complex pumps in certain cells that spend ATP energy pumping it out against the concentration gradient. Those pumps and the ATP are designed from complex specified information in the fish’s DNA. In the same sense, you can raise your arm against gravity because of complex systems (nerves, muscles, and blood), and your intelligent mind that can choose to contradict chance and natural law.

This is where the Design Filter comes in. Certain phenomena can emerge by chance. Others can emerge by natural law (the snowflake). But other phenomena will never emerge without complex specified information encoded by intelligence.

At the end of their article, Martin and Helmerson make some admissions that undermine their comparison of non-living emergent systems with living emergent systems. First, they recognize that there are "levels of complexity" that must be bridged to get to biological emergent systems:

Despite the ubiquity of emergent behaviour there remains no deep understanding of emergence. At each level of complexity, new laws, properties and phenomena arise and herein lies the problem.

Next, they recognize that they cannot leap from the nonliving examples to the living examples:

Properties describing one level of a complex system do not necessarily explain another level, despite how intrinsically connected the two may be. Understanding the emergence of the structure of molecules does not necessarily allow one to predict the emergence of cellular biology.

Finally, they admit that they have no idea what they are talking about. Nor does anyone else in the "conventional" (materialist) camp:

"new ways of thinking about emergence that go beyond conventional modelling of specific systems are required…. "

They should consider advancing beyond the conventional models that ignore intelligent causes, and try "new ways of thinking" about complex specified information that recognize the necessity and power of a designing intelligence. This will undoubtedly help them achieve their goal: "understanding and harnessing the fundamental organising principles of emergence remains one of the grand challenges of science."

Image source: Wikipedia.

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Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.

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