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Not a Magic

(It is early morning and as usual Achilles goes for a jogging. Today Tortoise has also joined him. Achilles tries to slow down to accommodate Tortoise speed. The sky is filled with thousands and thousands of birds as they fly and screech around there. Few predators fly above and wait for a right time to dive in to catch a weak bird.)

Achilles: Look at the flock of birds... they make spectacular patterns!


Tortoise: Yeah, it is amazing!

   
Achilles: I wonder how these birds fly together in such a coordinated manner to form these patterns. Perhaps, the bird which flies in the front may act as a leader to maintain the order.

Tortoise: But notice… often, they are many birds in the front not just one; and when the flock changes its directions some other birds are in the front. It is constantly changing.

Achilles: That is true. It may be difficult to identify the leader.

Tortoise: Do you know about Economist Adam Smith's invisible hand?

Achilles: It is about free market. For example, everyday New Yorkers get vegetables, fruits, etc. from every corner of the world. No single individual or city board or government coordinates this effort. This huge effort is achieved by individuals and individual companies who work on their own to make profit. It looks as if some invisible hand coordinates everything to make this happen.

Tortoise: No leader, no coordinator… but self-organizing!

Achilles: You mean, there is no leader in the flock of birds, but they self-organize as a group. But, how do they self-organize?

Tortoise: Each individual bird follows few simple rules; like…
• Go in same direction as the neighbors (else it becomes easy lonely prey to the predators)
• Do not get too far the neighbors (else it becomes easy lonely prey to the predators)
• Do not get too close to the neighbors (to avoid collide with each other)
• Of course, run away from the predators

When a group of birds follow these simple rules, and if one bird changes its direction to escape from a predator, the change propagates the entire group. This is what creates these patterns. Usually order/coordination comes from top down; the way a conductor conducts orchestra; or the way a general leads an army. But in this case, the order emerges from bottom up, from simple rules that are followed by individual birds. It is an emergence.

Achilles: An emergence?

Tortoise: Out of few simple rules followed by individual entities, new patterns/characteristics/behaviors ‘emerge’ as a group. Ants and termites are not brainy giants, they do not see big picture, but from each individual’s simple behaviors a complex colony emerges.
 
 
In some of the stronger emergences, unbelievably complex characteristics might emerge. For example, there are 75 trillion cells in our body. Even though each of our cells contains our entire genome (DNA), we would hardly say that any one of our cells constitutes us. But taken together a human being emerges. Another example… our brain contains several billion neurons. Each neuron performs a very simple function: relaying electrical messages across synapses to their neighbors. It's a physical action, yet out of their collective firings arise a psychological phenomenon, our conscious mind.

Achilles: It feels like a magic!

Tortoise: Because, the new emerging qualities are not totally irreducible to the system's individual entities. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. As Physicist Doyne Farme puts it, "It's not magic, but it feels like magic".

Achilles: How about life itself?

Tortoise: Yes, the magic of life emerges when certain simple chemical molecules come together. Here is a bigger picture… Chemistry emerges from fundamental law of physics; Biology emerges from basic laws of chemistry; Psychology (mind) emerges from simple neuro-biological laws.

Achilles: The basic concept of emergence seems simple, but not its meaning and implications!

Tortoise: I agree… especially, the latest theoretical physics implication that mass, space and time are emergent properties from much more fundamental entities!
 

 
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