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Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Whole (Once Again) is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

A couple of years ago, I noted that the term "emergence" refers to the way complex systems and patterns can arise out of a series of relatively simple interactions ("The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: Or, Why the Giants Finally Won the World Series"). There are two general forms of emergence: weak and strong. Weak emergence occurs when new formations arise that can be traced back to its constituent parts. Strong emergence refers to when new formations arise that can't be directly traced back to its parts but rather to how those parts interact; that is, they are seen as "irreducible" to their constituent parts. The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of its parts. Take, for example, the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen:
Water cannot exist apart from the hydrogen and oxygen that compose it . . . However, in their combination, the hydrogen and oxygen give rise to a truly new thing that is quite unlike either H or O, whether taken alone or as a sum of the separate parts H and O. Water, for example, has the characteristic of wetness, while hydrogen and oxygen do not. Water, furthermore, has the capacity to extinguish fires, while H and O feed fires.Water is the emergent reality brought about by a particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Water is very real and unique in its existence. It is composed of definite substances. But it is irreducible to that of which it is composed. Literally and truly something new has come into existence that is more than the sum of its parts.
As I watched the SF Giants complete their sweep of the Detroit Tigers, I was reminded (once again) that what's true about the interaction of atoms can also be true for the interaction of human beings. It, too, can give rise to social formations that take on a life of their own, follow their own logic, and cannot be reduced to or explained simply by their constituent parts even though they remain dependent upon those parts. Like formations in the natural world (e.g., water), these social formations can be more than the sum of their parts and why what's on paper does not always capture what happens on the field. It may also explain why of 27 ESPN "experts," only 5 picked the Giants to win the series.

P.S. In 2011, only 4 of 26 experts picked the Cards to beat the Rangers, and in 2010, only 6 out of 28 picked the Giants to beat the Rangers. Makes you wonder what qualifies one as an expert.

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