Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Emergent Properties

Science as a discipline functions across a great variety of scales. Despite its far reach, science often attempts to be fully continuous. Models and theories, both different ways of understanding the universe, are preferred not only when they are accurate predictors of natural phenomena, but also when they are consistent with the existing scientific canon. It is often difficult, however, for understandings of the universe to bridge across differences in scale. While extremely useful for understanding hydrodynamics, water tension is a meaningless concept at the atomic level. Water tension describes water on a macroscopic scale; it tells us about water’s properties as we interact with it in a tangible, physical medium. On the scale of one or two water molecules, it doesn’t make much sense. It is only a property of water as a bulk material. And yet, water tension is fully consistent with, and in fact hinges upon, an understanding of subatomic interactions. Polarity of molecules, how differentially electro-magnetic charges are applied across a molecule, depends on the stability of various molecular orbitals created by atomic interactions. When molecules with charge differentials interact, they often form stable configurations of attraction, and the net interaction of a large quantity of water molecules at the edges of a collection of water molecules can be described as water tension. A concept like water tension emerges from the characteristics of smaller pieces in bulk. To be a little trite, the sum is more than the whole of its parts.

To be more accurate, the sum is different from the whole of its parts. While the logical information is consistent across scale, when we change from models of polarity to models of water tension, the use case of the concept, the way in which we interact with it, changes. Polarity is a theoretical model whose effects we only see distantly in our daily lives. Water tension is a tangible predictor of water’s behavior which we interface with regularly. Something qualitatively has changed about the nature of the water we have been studying as we changed the scale of our inquiries into its behavior. By using the concept of emergence, two qualitatively different concepts, polarity and water tension, can be bridged together logically. We get to see ways in which one way of understanding water; as theoretical object, as molecule; maps onto another way of understanding water; as liquid, as observable phenomenon.

Emergence not only helps us map smaller-than-observable phenomena onto ones we are familiar with, but also lets us project our experience with familiar phenomena onto larger systems. Much of classical economics has understood humans as “rational actors.” This sort of economics views its actors as being influenced by larger systems of economics, by broad rules like supply and demand. The truth is, humans do not act rationally. Psychological inquiry into the nature of human decision-making helps us understand our own idiosyncrasies, and noticing the patterns and mass-behaviours which emerge from those individual idiosyncrasies can help inform more large-scale inquiries into economics. When we see the economy as emerging from lots of idiosyncratic people, our concept of economy is fundamentally different than if we see the economy as an entity which acts on many rational actors.

In his 1976 book, The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault comes to an emergent understanding of systemic power and hierarchies. Foucault critiques traditional marxism much like economists have critiqued the model of “rational actors.” Where Marx sees simple processes, dialectics of power which unfolded on a societal scale, Foucault argues that power only emerges from the level of the individual. He contends that if we do not have an understanding of how power acts on individuals, how concepts oppress and do violence within small communities, we have no chance at painting a realistic picture of power on larger scales. As opposed to one hierarchy which passes from monarch to lords and trickles down to peasants, or from bourgeoisie to petit bourgeoisie and trickles down to workers, Foucault argues that power is always an immanent force. It begins and ends between two people. Along the intricate paths of our personal relationships, power creates webs and nets, not strict hierarchies through society. This is not to say that a large-scale dynamic or dialectic does not exist, but that it only exists as it emerges from the interpersonal scale. Emergence is a sort of summing operation, an averaging from a multitude of interactions into one, new, single force which is representative of that multiplicity. To Foucault, this is what societal scale power is. This is what large narratives like racism, patriarchy, and classism are. They are not ever-present forces in themselves, disembodied from the humans who carry them out and are affected by them, but instead these “forces” are directions in which interpersonal power tends to flow. They are built up by countless norms and conventions which result in violence against certain culturally designated groups of people.

This is a qualitatively different concept from a more widespread, liberal conception of classism and racism and so on as disembodied forces, nebulous “systems” with no real actors. Much like knowing about the polarity of water molecules can give chemists a richer understanding of water tension, examining power as we wield and are influenced by it will give us a richer understanding of power as a societal force. Foucault’s conception of power and oppression puts individuals at the center of understanding it. We are encouraged to understand ourselves as participatory within broader webs of power. Our interactions are those from which power emerges; we are power’s embodiment. This is a revolutionary understanding of power; one which prompts praxis, not dread and symbolic concessions. This understanding of power as immanent and emergent is part of what shapes the revolutionary consciousness.

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