Talk by Daniel Schmachtenberger
Daniel Schmachtenberger is a futurist, evolutionary philosopher and strategist, and social engineer.
Transcript (below) by
Introduction: A life-giving synergy
This is a beautiful talk on emergence, its significance and fundamental importance for humanity. Emergence can seem abstract and off-putting. Don’t be fooled. Daniel, in this talk, breaks it wonderfully into its pieces and why this is fundamentally a life-giving, fount of energy. Love if you like to think about this in terms of what is being created.
This is a phenomenon where something new is being created. Something that emerges has unique properties that were not present in the parts creating it. If that sounds unlikely, cells are alive. The bits that make them up — DNA, molecules, membranes and water etc. — are not: life emerged from parts that did not have this property.
That is, we’re seeing synergy — the creation of relationships between individual parts where the result is greater than the sum of those parts. The relationships are encouraged by attractive forces. This is most easily seen with concepts such as gravity aggregating particles together to form planets but there are many subtler attractions too encouraging relationships.
Critically, however, we’re not talking about random relationships. Our universe and ourselves in our individual human bodies demonstrate an elegant order. We continuously select for such order. A good example is our evolution — we’ve clearly shifted from simpler life such as reptiles reacting to pain or pleasure to being able to read and reflect on conversations such as the one below.
What a shift! We can, as a result, forecast and engage in creating a more beautiful future. Indeed — if we’re aware of this, if we’re aware of our own consciousness, our ability to create and our interconnections with everything — engagement becomes an obligation. Why would we choose to do otherwise? There’s an extraordinary aliveness we feel in the creation of such beauty.
Looked at another way we’ve something to offer. We have something to give — our uniqueness for beautiful futures. Moreover, our exponentially changing world — be that ecological crises or technological enablement to create a different story, one that’s worldwide and truely civilized — means the current system is destabilizing. Phase shift change must occur and a distinct evolutionary shift is possible.
Alongside this, and part of it, is our expanding awareness. Awareness of an awareness that includes life meaning. This is intrinsic to civilization.
Read on below, or watch the video, as Daniel outlines emergence as essential to understand the nature of the universe we live in and what it means to be human. Daniel says you can consider his talk as “an extemporaneous rambling ode … a love talk about how cool it is that universe actually has this emergent property, that we can understand it, participate within and with it.”
1. Something new with properties none of its parts had
Let’s start by defining what is emergence. Emergence means something new arises that was not here before.
We all kind of have that sense intuitively but scientifically how does that happen? How do you bring particles or planets or anything together and all of a sudden the whole has some properties that none of the parts had? Where do they come from?
In the fields of science that study emergence — which evolutionary theory and biology and system science and complexity theory study — it is considered the closest thing to magic that’s actually a scientifically kind of admissible term. But, it’s still sketchy in terms of really understanding how this thing works
How do we get fundamentally new things out of relationships of things where that didn’t exist before? This is fascinating — how do you have a cell that respirates made up of molecules that don’t respirate?
We have a paired term that is key to understanding — synergy. Emergence is synergy. Synergy and emergence are two sides of the same phenomena. Synergy means a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Emergence that is ‘greater’? What is the new stuff that emerges out of bringing things together?
Synergies are more formally defined as properties of whole systems that aren’t found in any of the parts taken separately. This also means that those properties are fundamentally unpredicted by the parts taken separately.
That foreshadows a future fundamentally (ontologically) unpredictable from the current state of our foresight. That is a future very different from a mechanistic unfolding – clock-like, time-progressing, Newtonian like, linear shifts understanding of the future. Yet, it still makes sense in terms of scientific laws.
Consequently, synergy is creating relationships between pieces where the whole has new properties that the parts didn’t have. Emergence is a result of synergy, while synergy is a result of relationship between things coming together. That relationship is a result of attractive forces.
2. Attractive forces
Attractive forces are a central. Whether it’s gravity bringing dust together into planets or planets each other into solar systems. Whether it’s electromagnetism bringing subatomic particles together into atoms or the strong force bringing quarks together into protons.
Each of those is emergent properties, driven by synergy, driven by relationship, driven by attraction.
From a relationship perspective, it applies to bring people together via pheromones or love or intellectual affinity or a topic that we’re all interested in like creating a better world. There are and these are attractive forces.
Buckminster Fuller called love metaphysical gravity in the same way that gravity and physical forces act on physical bodies to attract them we have metaphysical forces that act on metaphysical bodies to drive attraction
Imagine a mental concept where all attractive forces are expressions of a fundamental principle of the universe, allurement. That is a principle by which separate things have reason to come together that offers an advantage that being separate doesn’t have. You can think about all of the forces as special-case applications of that.
Then imagine if that wasn’t the case – if we had a universe where allurement wasn’t a fundamental principle. The whole thing would have stopped at quantum foam and doesn’t even quite to the point of a subatomic particle. That’s a result if nothing attracts to then have synergy and emergent properties.
I have a friend and collaborator who calls this the universal story – at the heart of the evolutionary story is this love story. It’s an attraction: driving the whole evolutionary story; driving relationship; driving synergy; driving new emergent properties; driving net novelty and new creation; and, the arrow of evolution.
We can understand the arrow of evolution itself in terms of this set of phenomena together. Evolution in complexity theory is defined, generally, in terms of more elegantly ordered complexity. The definition has the word elegance built-in because it is again one of these fairly mysterious properties. But it’s key to it as bringing things together doesn’t give you emergent properties. Bringing them together in a particularly elegantly ordered way does.
Think about the parts that make up a cell. You’ve got all these nonliving parts, DNA and cell nucleus structures, all the different organelles and cytoplasm and they’re all not living. Then the cell is living but if you brought all those parts together, but you didn’t arrange them as a cell, it is just a bunch of molecules – it would just be goo!
If you took the 50 trillion cells that make you and you didn’t arrange them exactly the way they are – you just had 150 pounds worth of cells – it would be much less interesting even though there’d be just as much complexity. You wouldn’t have an order in the complexity, order where the emergent property comes.
3. Whole elegant order
That’s the relationship. It is not just heaps coming together. It is not just complexity, it’s wholes. The difference between a whole and a heap is order – a specific set of patterns of order. This means not every relationship is synergistic. Some relationships are entropic – they create the opposite direction destroying some properties that were already there.
Almost everyone has some examples – you can bring chemicals together that rather than self-organizing to create higher-ordered molecules with new thermodynamic properties have an exothermic entropic reaction (e.g. explode) and they drop to lower levels of organization.
This is true at all levels – it’s not just a relationship, it’s specific kinds of relationships that maximize synergy. That is a key thing to understand about the nature of the universe.
It is also the case that if you bring a bunch of the same things together you don’t get very interesting synergies. You get very interesting synergies when you bring different things, with different properties, together in the right format. For example, hydrogen and oxygen are different things and when you bring them together you get water (the basis for life). However, neither hydrogen or oxygen at room temperature are liquids – we’re consequently (should be) very interested in having deep synergistic relationships with differences that lead to fundamentally new emerging properties.
It’s not just net complexity, it’s ordered complexity and it’s elegantly ordered complexity. Then, when you get a new property and it is advantageous, that new property offers some evolutionary advantage to that system that it didn’t previously have. Things can come together in all kinds of ways but the ones that come together the most synergistically offer and confer the most advantage.
What we see on a universal scale is selecting for more differences, selecting for diversity and more synergistic combinations across the diversity. More agency and more symbiosis at the same time is what defines the arrow of evolution. Things that are separate autonomous agents right like a cell – you can think of it as having its own agency, its own ability to act and its own boundary and periphery but you bring a bunch of cells together and this collection of cells (us!) can reflect on consciousness and existentialism and have a conversation.
None of those cells on their own do that. It’s different kinds of cells, You couldn’t do that with just neurons. It takes neurons and glial cells and immune cells and stem cells etc to all come together to have such a conversation. So, more agency, more differentiation ,more orderly relationship, more synergy – all of that comes together and the net defining thing is emergence. How much fundamental new advantage arises and that’s what evolution selects for.
The evolutionary universe story, the new best story of the universe we have emerging from the intersection of all the sciences, is that we have an evolutionary universe that doesn’t require a creator-agent to create but is not just a random highly improbable set of movements.
There is a set of properties that give us a self-organizing rather than agent-creative-principle universe that is moving towards more elegant ordered complexity.
4. Evolution of consciousness itself
With that story on the physical, you additionally have the evolution of consciousness structures themselves – from a reptilian nervous system to the increased orderly complexity of the mammalian. Then a neocortical to the prefrontal nervous system. You move from the kinds of sentience that map to pain-pleasure at reptilian to emotional, to cognition, to abstraction. What we see is a universe that’s moving in the direction of not only more elegance but greater depths and breadths of consciousness itself.
Now this defines an arrow of evolution that reifies meaning in a very interesting way. With our capacity for abstraction we can think about more than our experiential self in the moment. We can think about ourselves in abstract terms. We can think about time abstractly – deep past and deep future. That is what allows us to actually understand evolution itself. It’s an understanding of deep past and fossil record and astrophysics that give us a sense of the ability to abstract laws. Laws of how change occurs over time.
These allow us a deeper insight as to how we got here and the ability to visualize a future fundamentally more beautiful and more interesting. The capacity to be part of a creative process encompassing and generating such a vision.
It’s worthwhile noting that our prefrontal cortex and our capacity for abstraction is a pretty new phenomenon, evolutionarily. It’s a very powerful set of capabilities. When you have new phenomena that are very powerful you’re not going to know how to use them that well. Many of its applications will be destructive until you figure it out.
We can think about the future as worry. We can think about the past as regret. We can think about ourselves, abstractly, in terms of negative self-comparisons. Consequently, we have spiritual ideals emerge saying this is all bad and the ability for abstraction is bad: we should not think about the future at all or think about the past and just be in the moment like the other animals and children – see how happy they are!
That’s a regressive spirituality that is rejecting the fundamentally novel human capability that emerged rather than saying let’s learn how to use it well for its evolutionary purposes in a fundamentally evolving universe. If we learn how to use it well then we can say how can we learn from the past, how the universe works, to be able to imagine a future in an omni-considerate way.
That is a way that has fundamentally less suffering and a higher quality of life across all meaningful quality of life metrics, for all life. Omni-considerately true, good and beautiful.
Learning how to use our capacities for understanding and abstraction well, how can we apply all that learning now? To actually help create that less-suffering, higher-quality world? In doing so we stop just being a part of the whole. In our ability to think about the whole and think about the direction of the whole we can become an agent for the whole.
This is huge – it is a very significant shift compared to say a bee. That insect is serving this huge role in evolution by pollinating the plants that make the atmosphere that make us but it doesn’t know it’s doing that. It can’t consciously figure out how to do it better. We, on the other hand, have the capability of looking at what the whole story is and identifying the whole evolutionary impulse of universe that brought us about and then woke up to itself in me and in such a meaningful way: I am actually the evolutionary universal impulse awoke to itself in a form that has adequate ordered complexity to contemplate that and then get to consciously choose how to participate with it.
5. Something to offer
What that means is you have something to offer the universe in your experience and your creativity that no one else has. This means if you don’t offer it, it just wouldn’t happen. The universe would have been fundamentally less if Salvador Dali or Michelangelo had not offered what they did.
When you get that your own self-actualization is compulsory. You have an obligation to it. Then, when you get that, considering everyone else if they don’t self-actualize the universe and their uniqueness and ability to offer it, your participation with helping everyone else self-actualize also becomes compulsory.
Competition becomes an obsolete concept. Symbiotic – remember the universe moves towards more differentiation, more novelty and then more symbiosis across that novelty for more emergence. What we’re moving towards is a civilization where everyone actually identifies this way: as an emergent property of the whole, as an interconnected part of the universe with a unique role to play, with unique synergies, with all the other unique roles. Then with that synergy, with that human participation, humanity becomes a thing. It becomes an emergent property.
Right now humanity is an idea but we don’t have humanity, we don’t have civilization, we have humans bumping against each other. We have a bunch of organelles that haven’t organized – similar to the cell that starts breathing – you do not have the behavior of the whole that is centrally and consciously self-organizing.
6. Forecast a more beautiful future
I can choose to be not just aboard Spaceship Earth but the crew. I can help steer the direction of evolution and the cosmos. We’re moving from evolution as a mostly unconscious algorithmic process that selects for dominance to a process that can be mediated by conscious agents. We can actually forecast a more beautiful future and select to help create that.
When we don’t identify as evolutionaries – we identify as nouns rather than verbs – we stay stuck where we’re at and then we need pain as an evolutionary driver. As soon as we identify with the inexorability of evolution and ourselves as evolution incarnate (evolution in human form) we stop needing pain to push us.
Everybody knows that when you are in the experience of creating beauty that didn’t exist before in the universe, beauty that adds to the universe, you feel a kind of aliveness. It’s not matched by anything else. When we’re not doing that there can be an emptiness that causes all kinds of addiction because that creative beauty is fundamental to what we’re now here to do.
When we identify as evolutionary we have a pull driver rather than just a push (e.g. pain) driver.
When we additionally identify as fundamentally interconnected parts of an interconnected universe rather than separate things we stop thinking that there is any definition of success for self that isn’t the definition of success for the whole. We stop thinking that the idea of advantaging ourselves at the expense of something else we’re inexorably interconnected with makes any sense at all.
We are all agents for an interconnected whole where our sense of self, ourselves, is actually an emergent property of the intersection of this system with the rest of the universe. It’s key in terms of emergence – yourself as an emergent property of the whole universe – because even though you wouldn’t exist in the same way without your brain and your body you also wouldn’t exist without the atmosphere, the trees that make it, the plants and bacteria that make it, the gravity and electromagnetism and foundational forces.
The concept of ‘I’ separate from the universe is a misnomer that does not make sense. The concept of a life path for ourselves that is not a life path for universe is a misnomer.
In the deepest sense, we can understand Einstein when he said: “the idea that there are separate things is an optical delusion of consciousness”. There is one reality – that we call the universe – of which we are all inextricably interconnected facets and your experience of self is a facet of that.
What’s so fascinating is it is interconnected with all. It is an expression of the foundation of all of it. It’s completely unique in all of the universe. It’s a unique facet. Non-fungibily unique.
7. Exponential change
If we cherry-pick from the huge data sets about where humanity is going right now we can see that things are exponentially changing. That means changing in a more and more rapid way and at more and more significant rates. You can cherry-pick metrics where things are getting exponentially better and that’s true and other things we’re getting exponentially worse and that’s also true.
The future that you predict, if you just follow any of those curves, is not happening. If things are getting exponentially better and worse at the same time it doesn’t mean things are getting better or worse. It means the current system is destabilizing – self-terminating.
We will either have a discrete phase shift to a lower order entropic system or the emergence of a higher-order system that is foundationally different than the current system we have in every way. The things getting bad are the pieces that can be reorganized to create a new civilization with a foundationally new structure.
Biosphere metrics are getting exponentially worse from the misapplication of technology. At the same time, technology’s application is making things fundamentally better giving us the capacity to do things like having data analytic capabilities to inventory all the world’s resources. That enables us to allocate all the world’s resources to meet all the world’s needs with optimum efficiency. We never have had that ability before. For example, transportation and communication technologies can actually make us a global civilization. That capability did not exist before.
8. A distinct evolutionary shift
The technological capacities that require us to step-up – otherwise we know self-extinction is a very real potential – also make possible a discrete phase shift in evolution that’s characterized by three major things.
At the level of social systems, primarily economics, the key shift we’re going to move to is a moving from a differential advantage economy -one that is defined by private ownership valuation based on scarcity and differential advantage – to an economic system that is defined by making sure that the incentive of every agent and the well-being of every other agent and the commons is perfectly aligned. One with no externality meaning we actually understand that it’s an interconnected system. We identify all the externalities and internalize them so the system is actually defined by systemic advantage for the whole.
This is not communism or socialism or capitalism. It’s something that was not possible before to even anticipate. However, it is how your body works where none of the cells are advantaging themselves at the expense of the other. They’re doing what’s best for them, what’s best for the whole symbiotically
That’s the key shift at the level of macroeconomics and correspondingly governance and all of our social structures at the level of infrastructure in the built world. We’re moving from a linear materials economy where we extract from the earth at ever-growing rates unsustainably from finite resources and then turn it into the trash to a closed-loop materials economy. That’s one where the trash is the new stuff.
We stop extracting from the earth. We stop producing waste and we actually have a post-growth negative entropy closed-loop materials economy where we can live on-goingly.
A progressive higher and higher quality of life, sustainably with the biosphere, so that’s the infrastructure shift, that’s the social structure shift.
9. The awareness shift
The superstructure, the mimetic shift, is this awareness of all of us – all of us as facets of one integrated self-evolving reality where the well-being of everyone, the well-being of everyone else, the well-being of the commons – is not meaningfully, calculably possible to do separate from each other.
There used to be such a thing as local problems for example when Gandhi was working with home rule for India. It was largely and thought of as an Indian problem and it didn’t directly affect everybody. When people wanted to leave the UK there was somewhere else to go (founding the USA). It was a local problem (with many obvious consequences).
Right now, when we deal with species extinction, ocean acidification, peak nitrogen, peak phosphorus – we’re dealing with all global issues. You can’t solve them without China, without India, without the USA, without everyone participating. For these, the idea that we have local issues is gone.
Our level of global infrastructure and technology has made to it where we have all global issues and they are existential. They are threatening all of the biosphere. No one has ever had issues in the history of humanity that threatened the ability of the species to continue. Exceptionally, they did not have the ones that they had to face in the short-term. Nor did they have the capacity to actually face those kinds of things. They did not have the data science, the technology that could build something fundamentally new.
What that means is we have the most significant work that humanity has ever had with the most significant capabilities. That also means we have the most potential to impact the biggest picture that any humans have ever had.
It’s easy to think about that and then get caught back into what you have got to do next — I am part of the present — to win at the current system. That current system is going extinct. Winning at a system that is obsoleting the capability of life on Earth to continue, winning within a dying system, is not an interesting win!
If you ever think about the definition of heaven — where you’re in heaven and there are people in hell — and you’re happy you have to be a psychopath. You have to be able to separate from the experience of other sentient things enough that you can be totally stoked with that level of suffering.
With the level of intensity of suffering that’s happening in the world, the idea that you could be stoked because you’re killing it in your life really means you have to be mildly psychopathic. If we want to not be psychopaths then there is no definition of success for ourselves that is not a definition of success for everything.
Now, when we start really taking that seriously everything changes. Then you start saying: well what can I actually do to make my life of greatest use to all life? Then your answer to that question is — if you take it seriously and really study, really work on it, don’t just ask the question, don’t get overwhelmed, give up and go back to current stuff you’re at — your progressively better answer to that question will lead to the emergence of your life meaning, Dharma and path.
Concurrently and correspondingly it leads to the emergence of civilization making it.
Posts and links
Daniel Schmachtenberger’s talk at Emergence here>.
The Sante Fe institute on mental models and complexity here>.
A definition of complexity and elegant order. For examples see:
- Barabási, A. L. (2017). The elegant law that governs us all, Science
- What is complexity? Here>