Book review

Emergence Comes From Nowhere, Does Nothing, Goes Nowhere, But Still Becomes Theory

We return to reviewing Sabine Hossenfelder’s, a.k.a. Old Hoss’s, new book Existential Physics. First part (many worlds), second part (entropy).

If you knew all there is to know about hydrogen alone, and again of oxygen alone, you would not be able to describe all there is to know about water. Something happens when the two chemicals are joined: they form a new substance, with properties both similar and strangely, even bizarrely, unlike those found in hydrogen or oxygen alone. The hydrogen and oxygen disappear into the water, lose their qualities, and become One New Thing.

In some modern parlance, it is said the properties of water “emerge” from its constituents. But that is merely to given the change a name. It does not describe a force or cause, or reason for the change. “Emergence” is itself not a property; it is a description, and nothing more.

A great danger in giving some process a name is—and you knew this was coming—The Deadly Sin of Reification. Sinners come to believe the name becomes the thing described. And so emergence becomes, for some, a mysterious occult force that operates and explains how some things come to be. Yet nobody can identify the characteristics of this force, because it doesn’t exist.

If you know about hydrogen and oxygen, and you know a great deal more about causal interactions of chemicals like these, which is knowledge above and beyond knowledge of just the chemicals alone, you can attempt to grasp the causes of the “emergence” (as was done here, but only for liquid water, and probably not all of liquid water; indeed, new properties of liquid water are still being discovered).

In short, by calling on “emergence”, you have done nothing, at all, about discovering why things are the way they are. For the way oxygen and hydrogen join is not the same was the way sperm and ovum join, or how butterflies emerge (!) from cocoons, or even how one flesh forms in a marriage, and so on.

Which is all another way of saying reductionism is false. Everything is not just undead blind particles, or whatever, bumping into each other. What is going on in the world is vastly more complex, and involves causes and powers far beyond “bumping.”

Old Hoss is a doctrinaire reductionist:

…as a particle physicist by training, I have to inform you that the available evidence tells us that the whole is the sum of the parts, not more and not less. Countless experiments have confirmed for millennia that things are made of smaller things, and if you know what they small things do, then you call tell what the large things do. There is not a single known exception to this rule. There is not even a consistent theory for such an exception.

We have already seen that the central claim is false, and that exceptions to reductionism not only exist, but are the norm. Knowing only that quarks (or whatever) behave in such-and-such a way tells you nothing, or as close to nothing as you like, about why people like to see $9.99 on a sale sign and not $10. Or even how water “emerges.”

Old Hoss believes there is bumping and nothing else, that bumping is everything. As we said with AI, reductionism is always a Grand Bluff. It is to argue “We’ll prove how emergence works someday for everything, because reductionism is true; therefore, because of emergence, reductionism is true.”

She gives away her circular argument in the last sentence above: “There is not even a consistent theory for such an exception.” What would such a theory look like? It would be a theory of “emergence”, of how the bumping magnifies, in some way, to create new substances unlike their constituents. And it would be the same everywhere.

Yet this is not how things work. Substances are different from each other, having different powers and characteristics, so that no uniform and singular theory of emergence can exist.

Yet Old Hoss says:

But reductionism—according to which the behavior of an object can be deduced from (“reduced to,” as the philosophers would say) the properties, behavior, and interactions of the object’s constituents—is not a philosophy. It’s one of the best established facts about nature.

She’s bluffing again. Or boasting (“as a particle physicist by training…”), trying to embarrass you into acquiescence by shining into your eyes the light of brilliant minds who believe in reductionism. It is not an established fact, or anything even close to one, that reductionism is true, and indeed all evidence is against it.

Let me ask you this, Old Hoss, just what is life, and how does it emerge from quarks, or strings (though it seems you don’t buy string theory), or whatever?

“We’ll know someday, so we know now.”

Uh huh.

This Everything Is Bumping runs throughout her book, most infamously in her failed attempt to show free will does not exist. It does exist. It is why I said “It does exist.” I won’t run through the arguments from her book, because they match those she gave in a video, which we analyzed earlier.

I will say the argument is shot-through with The Bluff. Example: “Because the physical part of our brain is demonstrably the thing we use to make decisions…”

I’ll leave it as homework to show why that is circular.

There is also much more to say about “Emergence”, like how some say the picture used for today’s post, ripples in sand dunes, are “emergent”. It’s surprising Old Hoss did not see her clever argument against entropy (see the second part) could be used here.

Bonus I was informed some of you have not yet watched this video. I am assuming these are false reports. But, if not:

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Categories: Book review, Philosophy

18 replies »

  1. Great article. A book of Deadly Reifications would go great alongside Everything You Know is Wrong.

  2. “Emergence: is something Late Moderns say because it became too discomfiting to say “Formal Causes.” Sodium and chlorine are both made of identical parts – protons and electron [okay, and neutrons], but what makes one a poisonous gas and the other a flammable metal is <the number and arrangement of those parts, IOW: their form. The formal cause determines what properties “emerge.”

    Who would predict that a compound of a flammable metal with a poisonous gas would form a tasty condiment for your corn-on-the-cob?

  3. @YOS — Apologies for the virtual hugs you may have noticed just now…

    @OurHumbleHost — You get a couple also.

    In 20 years, I might be able to use the word Reification in a sentence outside of this forum…

    20 years ago, I couldn’t use the word Epidemiology. I can use it now, but that doesn’t mean people understand.

  4. Briggs quotes Science Chick:

    ”I have to inform you that the available evidence tells us that the whole is the sum of the parts, not more and not less. Countless experiments have confirmed for millennia that things are made of smaller things, and if you know what they small things do, then you call tell what the large things do.”

    To see if that’s true I first reduced it to pixels, then reduced the pixels to electrons, and the electrons to Briggs hosens. Those of you who are trained particle psychopaths will know the Briggs hosen is the Basic Bumper, the Dog Particle, the Prime Pooper, which is to say it’s the matter that Matters. So those little devils bumped into some bigger dudes that were hanging out along my optic nerve, and those dudes kicked the dog that bit the cat that ate the rat that sat on a hat and ended up causing a minor kerfluffle in my neurotic synapses that fairly shouted out that Science Chick is nuts!

    She is kinda cute though, in a chipmunky way.

  5. A big tell is the use of “philosophy” as a dirty word, when describing a philosophical position. People like this cannot conceive a TRUE philosophical position, so they divide their world into “facts” and “philosophies.” The bluff is that all “facts” can be simply observed, but this is ridiculous enough when discussing most established scientific theories, and nonsensical when defending positions like reductionism or materialism. Obviously those are philosophical conditions that cannot be directly “seen” in reality but must be derived by some sort of more general argument.

    Thus inevitably people like this CANNOT have an argument for their positions other than one of the following:

    1.) It’s an obvious fact!
    2.) I’m a scientist, you must agree with me!

    Similarly the only possible replies to objections are:

    1.) Science will figure that stuff out in the future.
    2.) What are you, an idiot?
    3.) I don’t have to listen to philosophers.

    To go outside those arguments would be to admit that they are advancing a philosophical position, which must be avoided at all costs.

  6. The problem with the NPCs known as scientists is what they say is true of their own empty soulless nature. Hoss indeed is nothing but bumping into things. She is indeed as unintelligent as a subatomic particle. Their mistake is that they describe their empty soulless nature, but we have souls. So nahnahnahbooboo to them.

  7. @YOS,
    Nailed it. If we accept what is said of neutrons, they are formed from electron capture by a proton. Yes, from my old chemist days, the chemists scoffed at the philosophers, partly because what those people spouted was so far removed from the practical reality the chemists worked in. Unfortunately, said chemists too often forgot or elided over the facts that they were still using philosophy and metaphysics at the foundation.

    Oh, two substances that I found the chemistry they exhibited to be the most fascinating were water and carbon compounds. The chemistry of the others seemed so simple compared to those.

  8. Here’s something else fascinating, to me, about water. In our atmosphere, water vapor isn’t just monomers. It is also dimers, trimers, and tetramers in decreasing numbers. Then we get water in the atmosphere as aerosols made of condensed forms (liquid and solid) where the sizes also vary from micrometer, which isn’t directly visible yet gives visible haze, to 0.1 millimeter and larger sizes, which are visible and called clouds and mist.

  9. Relax, Hoff will have the last laugh: AGI will appear as an emergent property of Large Language Models and the power of probability, become super-intelligent, and AGI will know what emergence is even though our monkey brains aren’t able to contain the knowledge. There will also be flying pigs due to the emergent properties of wings and evolution.

  10. Mmm … I get nervous when I disagree with the Statistician To The Stars™, but here goes.

    Suppose you lived somewhere that there were never clouds. The sky is always blue.

    Then suddenly, one day out of nowhere to use Briggs’s term, a giant white puffy thing appears in the air above your head. Then it grows vertically as winds start to whip around the base.

    Then to your utter shock and horror, there is an immense BOOM, a blinding flash, and your house goes up in smoke.

    That thunderstorm is an emergent phenomenon. Why? Here’s a useful definition:

    An “emergent phenomenon” is a complex behavior, pattern, or structure that arises from the interactions among simpler components of a system, but is not directly predictable from the properties of those components in isolation. In other words, emergent phenomena are novel properties or behaviors that emerge from the collective interactions of the parts of a system, and cannot be reduced to or explained by the properties of those individual parts alone. Emergent phenomena can be found in many different domains, including physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.

    The concept is of interest to me because I study climate science. Emergent phenomena like clouds, thunderstorms, Rayleigh-Benard circulation, night-time oceanic overturning patterns, tornadoes, squall lines, and the Niño/Niña alteration are crucial parts of how the climate system is self-regulating.

    In addition, they have another property—virtually NONE of them are simulated by climate models.

    For those reasons, I find the distinction between emergent phenomena on one hand, and the “basic physical principles” that climate models claim to adhere to (but don’t) to be a very useful one in the study of climate science.

    Now, the STTS™ is indeed correct that these phenomena do “not describe a force or cause, or reason for the change.”

    But that doesn’t mean we cannot study them to assist us in understanding the system. For example, many emergent phenomena are threshold-based—when some physical threshold is exceeded, they emerge, sometimes in the hundreds.

    So for example in the tropics, in the cool mornings the sky is often clear. But when a certain temperature threshold is exceeded, cumulus clouds emerge until they cover the whole sky. This reflects a huge amount of sunlight back to space, greatly cooling the earth.

    Why is this important? It’s important because the threshold is TEMPERATURE based, not RADIATIVE FORCING based. It doesn’t matter how much sunlight or CO2 is present. Until the temperature threshold is exceeded, nothing happens.

    And this is only one of the many ways that the climate system responds via emergent phenomena to increasing surface temperature to reduce that temperature. It clearly shows that CO2 is NOT the secret temperature control knob.

    Further deponent sayeth not.

    My best regards to all, and my profound thanks to the STTS™ for his always interesting blog.

    PS—I discuss these concepts in more detail below:

    And a list of my analyses of emergent phenomena is below.

  11. After 5…k…n elementary things come together and only their togetherness yields a compound of k things, then something is cause with impossibility to act when k things are alone or isolated [using arbitrary figures here and arbitrary things — like atoms]. The quibble is about: particle physics uses GigaV to smash atoms, but the togetherness property did not show up — “things” fly away in all directions.
    P.S. even under threat of highly distressing questioning, Sabine will [IMHO] not admit that binding energy absorbed/appealed in smashing with/of elementary processes (from where then comes “observed” cause) is neither calculable nor measurable; no spectrometer (etc) was built to detect unknown forces — it couldn’t be tested anyways — the Smasho-chine is dead end for researching togetherness.

  12. Speaking of emergence, perhaps one way to think of probability is as a sort of second-order physics.

    We can mathematically model probability, but the fact that long-term a coin comes up heads about 50% of the time and tails about 50% of the time or that for a die each side will come about about 1/6 of the time is a fact about the nature of our world. But it’s not a new physical principle, it’s about the interaction of other causes with each other. That when a bunch of causes with small effects interact, they tend to cancel each other out in the long-run.

    So, on the one hand we have the mathematical models but on the others, the underlying reason why these models are useful. Which I guess has something to do with the interaction of many causes.

  13. I prefer Rene Thom’s Catastrophe Theory anyway, where your hill of beans suddenly collapses when you put that one last bean on top. You then claim you knew it was going to happen all along, just not quite when. Eschenbach appears to be able to have his cake and eat it, when the thing suddenly appears out of nowhere from all our reduction to atoms he can pivot and get right on, ignoring the fact there was nothing in the analysis to predict what’s happening from the initial assumptions. Climate Scientists can’t stand Catastrophe Theory.

  14. A book with the grand title “Existential Physics”, implies a certain philosophy, which its author carefully explains is not a philosophy at all, really; rather, it’s the Truth: The Physics of Existence, is particles bumping together.

    Sabine’s book itself is an argument against her argument, because the book was not formed by particles bumping up against each other to eventually form pixels which fell into place; it was formed first of all and somehow, in the mind of Sabine; Sabine, wherefore art thou mind? From whence comes thy intelligence? How dost your tiniest particles know what to do? From whence do they come?

    Why, another particle, say these particle physicists, “gives them mass”. The rather embarrassingly named, God Particle:

    “The Higgs boson’s nickname “the God Particle” was solidified upon its discovery, namely as a result of the popular media. The origin of this is often connected to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman referring to the Higgs boson as the “Goddamn Particle” in frustration with regards to how difficult it was to detect.

    [Blessed be His Holy Name.]

    “Business Insider says that when Lederman authored a book on the Higgs boson in the 1990s the title was to be “The Goddamn Particle” but the publishers changed this to “The God Particle” and a troublesome connection with religion was drawn, one which bothers physicists to this day. 

    [Blessed be His Holy Name.]

    “Still, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Higgs boson and the Higgs field in general, as without this aspect of nature no particles would have mass. That means no stars, no planets, and no us? —? something which may help warrant its hyperbolic nickname. 

    Higgs boson: The ‘god particle’ explained | Space

    So there we have it. God is a particle; and maybe that is as good a starting place as any, for the likes of particle physicists, or at least for the atheists among them.

    “He is before all else that is, and He holds all things together in Himself (By Him all things consist).” Col 1:17.

    He is Risen! Hallelujah!

  15. Rudolph Harrier wrote:
    “ Thus inevitably people like this CANNOT have an argument for their positions other than one of the following:

    1.) It’s an obvious fact!
    2.) I’m a scientist, you must agree with me!

    Similarly the only possible replies to objections are:

    1.) Science will figure that stuff out in the future.
    2.) What are you, an idiot?”

    This made me laugh out loud! I don’t usually talk to scientists so the people I argue with rarely get to his objection #3, they are content with 1and 2. But The last time I had a professional scientist friend I spoke to frequently, he was content with #1. And I mean CONTENT. “Science” was just about to figure out everything, so why bother thinking about anything it hadn’t figured out yet? Any moment now we’d get a Grand Unified Theory. Is that still a “thing?”

  16. Old Hoss! – Really? Must we start this discussion with name calling? Beating up women now, are we? This is NOT the MMA! There’s enough of that by the left. They “name call” when they have nothing really to say!’ You by contrast almost always have something useful to say!

    I was really put off by this and had to force myself to read your arguments. If she started it. Your usually well-reasoned & written arguments are response enough.

    And no I am NOT some shrinking violet, it’s just there’s enough uncivility in the world. Why contribute to it?

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