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Enablement And Radical Emergence

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer): Enabling a fruitful future.

U.S. Army Photo hide caption

toggle caption U.S. Army Photo

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer): Enabling a fruitful future.

U.S. Army Photo

We have a wondrous word in English: enablement; that is "to make possible." We rarely use this magical word. We see the world in terms of causes. But, I claim, while cause is often true, enablement is often closer to the truth and seeing where and how we enable the unfolding of history, the economy and our very lives, gives us a power we rarely think about.

I do not mean enablement in the pejorative sense; "He enabled her addiction." I mean enablement in the full wealth of how the evolving biosphere, and human life, richly makes possible what we may rightly call "radical emergence." Here is the creativity of the universe, at least for the living world, in our grasp. When we see the world through the lens of enablement, we become empowered.

Let me, to demonstrate enablement, repeat a history I've written about before. With the invention of the Turing machine in 1933, the invention of the computer was enabled. The ENIAC was the first at the University of Pennsylvania in WWII to compute shell trajectories for the United States Navy. But the invention of the ENIAC, enabled the invention and commercial sale of the mainframe computer.

The wide sale of the mainframe computer created a new economic "niche" that enabled Steve Jobs to imagine a personal computer filling that niche. Apple was born and the wide sale of the personal computer transformed our lives, enabling myriad novel activities.

The wide sale of the personal computer created a new economic niche that enabled the invention of word processing and Microsoft's (and others) ascent.

The wide sale and use of word processing meant vastly many more computer files were stored, creating a novel niche, the sharing of files between users and their computers. The World Wide Web was invented to fill this new niche, hence the WWW was enabled by the creation of the niche.

The existence of the World Wide Web created a new niche where goods could be sold on the web and eBay was born, enabled by the new niche the Web created. Then the growing content on the WWW created a new niche for searching for content on the Web, and Google and Yahoo were enabled and flourish. The wide use of the Web created yet another niche, social contact, and Facebook was enabled and filled that niche.

The wide use of Facebook enabled the Arabic Spring and the present Occupy Wall Street social movements.

It is essential that these enablements are not causes. Cause is a heritage from Aristotle and Newton, Aristotle's four causes — material, formal, efficient and final — Newton's mathematization of efficient cause as entailment given by the integration, hence deductive entailment, of his laws of motion in differential equation form, with initial and boundary conditions.

But the wide sale of personal computers did not cause the invention and wide sale of word processing at all. Rather, the wide sale of personal computers created a novel economic niche which was a new, unforeseen opportunity that Microsoft and others seized to invent and spread word processing.

Seeing the world in terms of causes renders us hapless victims of vast webs of causes. Seeing the world as webs of niche creation enabling novelty, radical emergence, that creates new activities and new niches for yet further unfolding radical emergence, places us in a world of becoming that generates its own possible directions of future becoming. The history from the ENIAC to Facebook above is a story of such enabled niche creation that creates the very possibilities of the further radical emergence of what becomes.

It is essential that this radical emergence arises without human consciousness and our presumed responsible free will, even in the evolution of the biosphere. I've written about this before, but repeat it here, with minor apologies; the issue is too important not to stress.

We need, again, to state Darwinian pre-adaptations, or exaptations. Ask Darwin the function of Kauffman's heart: "Pump blood," is the prompt reply. But my heart makes heart sounds and jiggles water in my pericardial sac. Why are these not the function of my heart? Darwin would answer that I have a heart pumping blood because my ancestors had such hearts and it was of selective advantage to them to have hearts that pump blood. So the function of my heart is to pump blood, not make heart sounds.

Behind Darwin's answer is a profound physical fact of the universe.

Consider all possible proteins, each made of 20 types of amino acids, length 200 amino acids. There are 20 x 20 x 20, 200 times, or 20 to the 200th power, possible proteins length 200. Twenty to the 200th power is 10 to the 260th power. But there are "only" 10 to the 80th particles in the universe. The shortest time scale is the Planck time scale of 10 to the -43 seconds. If all the particles were doing nothing on that time scale but making proteins length 200 it would take 10 to the 39th power repetitions of the lifetime of the universe to make all possible proteins length 200!

Thus the truly essential point: Above the level of atoms, the universe is on a non-repeating trajectory. It is vastly non-ergodic. When the possible outstrips the actual, history arises. But that means most complex things will never exist in the universe, so the existence of my heart is amazing. Hearts "got to exist." Then Darwin's explanation that the function of my heart is to pump blood, more deeply explains why hearts exist in the universe.

Note again that the function of my heart is a subset of its causal consequences, pump blood, not heart sounds.

Darwin noted that a causal consequence of a part of an organism of no selective use in one environment might become of selective use in another environment, so be selected in what is called a Darwinian pre-adaptation. I give one example, given before: some fish have a swim bladder, a sac partly filled with air and water whose ratio adjusts neutral buoyancy in the water column. Paleontologists believe swim bladders arose from the lungs of lungfish: water got into some lungs, now poised to evolve into swim bladders. Let's accept this account.

Now I make only two of many points.

First, did a new function come to exist in the biosphere? Yes, neutral buoyancy in the water column, filling a selective role in a new niche, where neutral buoyancy was useful. This parallels a new function such as word processing coming to exist.

Second, once the swim bladder existed, was it itself a new niche? Yes! A worm or bacterium might evolve to live only in swim bladders. But here is the stunning truth: Did selection act to create a functioning swim bladder in a population of evolving fish? Probably "Yes." But, did natural selection act to create the swim bladder as a new niche for a worm or bacterium? No! No selection acted to create the new niche. Yet the new niche afforded by the swim bladder enabled an entire new set of possibilities for the evolution of the biosphere. It is essential that the swim bladder as a new niche did not cause the worm or bacterium to evolve to live in the swim bladder. No, the swim bladder's existence enabled the worm or bacterium to evolve to live in the swim bladder, in part by a quantum, acausal, indeterminate, mutation or set of mutations. Thus, without selection, the biosphere is creating and enabling, not causing, its own future possibilities of becoming. Evolution, with no mind, is enabling the possibilities it can become. These un-pre-statable new possibilities that may manifest in reality are "radical emergence."

Yes the world is a web of causes. But it is also, for the living world, a web of niche creation and enablement, presumably beyond entailing law as I posted in "The End Of A Physics Worldview: Heraclitus And the Watershed Of Life."

We are empowered.

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