Emergence is not Evolution

I have previously written about emergence in “Five types of change in philosophy”, even comparing emergence and evolution in types four and five. Nevertheless, I wanted to say something more focused on the distinction here. In my previous post, I alluded to there being a fallacy of absent agency, and this fallacy I believe to be a result of an insufficient understanding of what differentiates emergence, and why it is distinct from the more well known idea of evolution. The following is something I wrote about Hayek‘s The Constitution of Liberty.  I am no great fan of Hayek’s, and this was part of a larger piece of work to try supplement his failings via the liberating hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Necessarily this has a fragmentary feel, but I have left it more or less as is.

What is often overlooked in readings of Hayek is that his politics implies an epistemology. To miss this point, is to misread Hayek. Continue reading

Hierarchy and network


“If this book displays a clear bias against large, centralized hierarchies, it is only because the last three hundred years have witnessed an excessive accumulation of stratified systems at the expense of meshworks. The degree of homogeneity in the world has greatly increased, while heterogeneity has come to be seen as almost pathological, or at least as a problem that must be eliminated. Under the circumstances, a call for a more decentralized way of organizing human societies seems to recommend itself.

However, it is crucial to avoid the facile conclusion that meshworks are intrinsically better than hierarchies (in some transcendental sense). It is true that some of the characteristics of meshworks (particularly their resilience and adaptability) make them desirable, but that is equally true of certain characteristics of hierarchies (for example, their goal-directedness). Therefore, it is crucial to avoid the temptation of cooking up a narrative of human history in which meshworks appear as heroes and hierarchies as villains. ”

Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear                                                                                                                             History, p. 69

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A note on emergence


One of the points about spontaneous order is that we do not discuss it, “Emergence”. What we have to actually discuss are emergent features, emergent patterns, emergent phenomena. It is a matter of addressing concrete examples and considering them in the light of an idea which we hold very lightly in our hands. It is a frame which is delicate, but which nevertheless has great powers of consolidating complexity into a structure which does justice to the totality examined. For this reason, it is difficult to draw out because we so often appeal to reductive epistemology, which is fundamentally alien to emergent phenomena. So we attempt to explain it via analogy, and in this analogy we hope to betray the limitations of the more standard epistemology, which is often predicated on basic arithmetic notions and binary opposition. When explaining “Emergence” we will each and every time have to indicate a new phenomenon. Perhaps at some point, after enough study has been done, generalization will be possible, but for now we need to aim for specificity and precision.

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Five types of change in philosophy

In any discussion of emergence, it is often difficult to separate this concept from its semantic cousins who all live in the same philosophical neighbourhood. Sure, they’re related, but they don’t really talk much. There’ll be a polite nod, and maybe a few minutes of chit-chat about how Uncle Dynamis is these days, but they don’t have a huge amount to say to each other beyond that. Conversation will slow, headphones will pop in, and each will return to their own little world.

Change is central to philosophy either for reasons of counting it as the defining principle (as Heraclitus does), or for reasons of escaping it and its counter-intuitive implications (Parmenides, Plato, Hegel, whoever else). Continue reading