‘Emergence’ Explained in Everyday Speak… So Defense Forces Might Mean What They Say!by : Ben Zweibelson
Original blog post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/emergence-explained-in-everyday-speak-so-defense-forces-might-mean-what-they-say-f298f6297bf2
I see the term “emergence” used quite a bit in security, defense and related discussions. It usually is clustered with “complexity”, “non-linear”, and “adaptive” in discussions on how to better equip organizations to deal with uncertainty. Yet often, the term is being misapplied (forced to fit into a framework based not on complexity theory but Newtonian physics and classical warfare theory), rendering it more of a buzz word to spice up a discussion. Another hint that complexity theory is misunderstood by the speaker is when they interchange ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ in the same sentence…they are indeed quite different and require deeper appreciation so that the concepts translate to the challenge. As for ‘emergence’- the next time you hear it used, try asking the speaker for an example of what emergence is. If they stumble, chances are- you might be winning buzz word bingo.
Usually, ‘emergence’ is played as a synonym for ‘that which is coming up in the future but not quite here yet.’ This is a misnomer- in that emergent phenomenon do indeed express in the future and currently are not in the picture, but emergence in complex systems is far more nuanced. One distinction is whether the person using the term is thinking in systematic or systemic logic. Aside from hitting two more buzz word bingos in that sentence, those terms are confused nearly as much as complicated and complex are. Systematic logic expects a system to behave in an ‘expected input leads to desired output’ or A plus B should equal C. Systematic logic underpins much of our thinking in reality, because it is really useful and when we are in a stable, simplistic or complicated system, systematic logic works just fine. This is linear causality- and how militaries construct ‘Ends equal Ways plus Means’ to develop military plans and campaigns.
Yet systematic logic falls apart in complex and chaotic systems- which tend to be the very ones a military struggles with and is directed to think and act within. This is where systemic logic works better, and requires an understanding of emergence. Unlike systematic logic (input-output, linear causality, mechanistic, analytical), systemic logic draws from multiple competing and paradoxical ways of understanding and acting. Systemic thinking requires multiple ways of thinking about systems, complexity, differences in objectivity and subjectivity, as well as the prioritization of paradox, nonlinearity, emergence, and innovation. Systemic thinking focuses upwards and outwards, seeking to realize and explain larger systems that are interacting, overlapping, and in tension with smaller systems of which one might be experiencing what one labels a ‘problem.’
The distinction between systematic and systemic thinking is one of looking inwards to reduce and describe, and looking outwards to connect and explain. Systematic thinking relates to analytical reasoning, while systemic thinking is that of design synthesis. Complexity theorist Russell Ackoff provides an explanation of synthesis and how it differs from analysis, as well as how organizations tend to misunderstand the relationship of both efforts toward complex systems:
The perceived wrongs in a system can seldom be considered separately and removed one by one; wrongs are generally systemic properties that arise out of the interaction of the system parts. To right the wrongs one must deal with them holistically (synthetically), not analytically. Research is the paradigm of analytical thinking; design is the paradigm of synthetic thinking. Therefore, by redesigning systems, one can right its wrongs. But, there are two types of wrongs: Doing things wrong (incorrectly), a matter of means, and doing the wrong things, a matter of ends… correcting these errors involves doing things right (efficiency), and doing the right things (effectiveness).
Now, on to explaining emergence. First, let us hit four major points on what complexity theorists use to explain what emergence is, and what it is not. This may get a little dry, but don’t worry- we will mix in dinosaurs and nuclear weapons in the next section to elaborate on the “so what” of these explanations.
In complex systems, emergence cannot be explained within the context of the previous system- or, you cannot fully describe and appreciate the new emergent state by relying on pre-emergent terms, language, ideas, etc.
Second- emergence is unpredictable, novel, and nonlinear. So when we see lots of “future outlooks- how the next big thing is going to emerge…” you need to be ready for snake oil salesmen. Until the emergent state is upon us, it really cannot be predicted with any accuracy. Further, emergence brings forth things that are new- novel; unseen before. This is why every futuristic movie, show, or book is usually miles off from what the future becomes. Think “Back to the Future 2” and how it only tried to go 30 years forward from 1985 to 2015. Marty McFly had his hover-board but no smart phone or Facebook. Novel things are, well, novel! Emergence is not about dragging the old and known forward in new twists- emergence is about shattering present paradigms and ushering in completely different and unexpected forms.
Third- emergence is dependent upon underlying processes, but paradoxically, emergence is also autonomous from underlying processes. Okay- wait for the dinosaurs and nuclear arms section for me to better explain that one.
Fourth- emergence often has something complexity theorists call “downward causation.” This is where within a complex system, there are these micro processes and macro ones (little versus big) that are ongoing. Downward causation occurs when emergence transforms micro processes at the macro-level, of which the micro processes could never have realized within the older (non-emergent) system. Okay- if you are still with me, lets apply some useful metaphors here to tease out some better explanations.
Sociologists like Donald Schon and Karl Weick stress the importance of metaphors. Schon even goes deeper into metaphoric knowledge development in his “displacement of concepts” book that I recommend if you like this sort of topic. Today’s first metaphor applied to the concept of emergence is the cycle of dominant life extinction on planet Earth; or “how the dinosaurs died so humans could rise up” example. As for any paleontologists lurking online ready to pounce- this is merely a simplified example so that this metaphoric device conveys the fundamentals of emergence in a useful and somewhat concrete way.
We all know the story- the dinosaurs grew into the most powerful and successful biological organisms on the planet (at the time) but were unable to prevent their own demise. Here, we assume the meteor strike mass extinction event is the valid theory. Scientists trace back mass extinction events back in time on a repeating cycle of about every 60 to 100 million years. Essentially, the universe has a reset button of sorts- and from a biological perspective, scientists see the meteor cycle as essential to the Earth gaining enough exotic materials on the crust to develop the very life we are today. Dinosaurs had all of that too, but the earlier life millions of years earlier likely did not- so the asteroid reset cycle had value and importance on several levels.
So, the stable cycle here is one of life developing with the raw materials available on the planet’s crust over millions of years. A dominant life form develops, and eventually an asteroid hits the planet wiping out the dominant (but not all) life to reset the clock and provide two things. More exotic materials into the crust that are essential to complex life, and a safety valve of sorts to kick the current dominant life to the curb to make room for something different.
Now, the dinosaurs dominated until 65 million years ago. More importantly for this example, every previous cycle of dominant life rising and then being extinguished by a planet extinction asteroid strike had yet another similar cycle follow it. There was plenty of emergence here within the stable system (the dinosaurs likely prospered after whatever earlier life was wiped out in an earlier reset event)- but this last extinction event 65 million years ago ushered in something profoundly new.
Humans evolved from the small, rat-like mammals that were dominated by dinosaur life once the dinosaurs died out and got out of the way. Yet mammals brought the development of greater intelligence and eventual self-awareness to the party. Big brains, and the limbs and physical assets to communicate and manipulate the environment broke life on Earth out of what was previously a rather powerful cycle. Humanity today can not only contemplate past life extinction events, but we can track upcoming asteroids that might pose a threat, and we have the space projection abilities to (theoretically) stop an asteroid that otherwise would end life on the planet. Humans can interrupt the larger (macro) life extinction cycle. Emergence…but wait- there is more.
Humanity with the self-awareness and intelligence to outwit the life-extinction asteroid cycle brings forth an even deadlier and more unstable effect the dinosaurs never worried about (if they could worry). Humans have created nuclear weapons so powerful they actually beat the dangers of asteroid impacts, and unlike the 60–100 million year random lag on asteroid impacts, humans in the last 65 years have made dominant life extinction a button-push away. Think about it- dinosaurs had millions of years; society in the 20th and 21st century will pass onto every single future human society the perpetual threat of nuclear Armageddon. Plus we still have asteroids out there to worry about!
So, going back to the four points on emergence- and applying dinosaurs and nuclear weapons to the concepts to flesh this out:
Emergence cannot be explained in the previous system because an emergent state creates new requirements for new concepts, language, ideas. The dinosaur world where only asteroids could wipe the planet out could not describe the emergent threat of nuclear weapons. To do that, you need to first evolve mammals and then after self-awareness and the whole development of civilization get to where we master making bombs that can wipe society out.
Emergence is unpredictable, novel, and nonlinear. Going from dinosaurs running the planet to humans able to deflect asteroids and also wipe out society with the push of a button is about as nonlinear and unpredictable as it gets.
Now for the two trickier aspects of emergence from earlier- emergence is dependent upon underlying processes and also paradoxically autonomous from them. Remember that in order for humans to rise up, the emergence of human life is dependent upon the previous necessary cycle of planet extinction. We needed the dinosaurs to die, so that we might rise up. The rise of human life (and the subsequent development of nuclear weapons capable of disrupting the life extinction cycle of asteroids) is dependent on the underlying processes that led to the dinosaur demise. Human emergence is autonomous from that cycle, because not only can humans disrupt the previous cycle of life extinction every 60–100 million years by a random asteroid- humans now can eliminate the dominant life (us) at any moment with the same nuclear weapons. We have introduced a new and far more unstable and faster cycle that the previous cycles and Earth never dealt with. Asteroids become irrelevant- in that there does not need to be one for Earth to sustain a human inflicted dominant life event. Thus, humanity is in an emergent and novel cycle that is autonomous from the earlier dinosaur ones.
Lastly, the “downward causation” aspect here for emergence. “To cause any property (except those at the very bottom level) to be instantiated, you must cause the basal condition from which it arises (either as an emergent or as a resultant)”- Jaegwon Kim, “Making sense of Emergence” in “Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science” edited by Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys. The downward causation is as such- dinosaurs get wiped out by asteroids, leading to the rise of man. Man stops the threat of the asteroids, but also introduces much faster ways to wipe out humanity. Thus, the downward causation has the emergence of mankind bringing a completely new cycle of planet extinction that impacts all of the previous micro aspects of the earlier system. Asteroids remain- but man’s emergence now adds a completely new change to the entire process.
The term ‘emergent’ has fallen victim to buzz-word bingo in security circles, joining ‘synergy’, ‘synthesis’, ‘complexity’, ‘nonlinear’, ‘innovation’ and many others- we toss the terms around without realizing what we indeed are saying (or perhaps not saying). Strategic design in current chaotic security contexts require us to go beyond the buzz words that bounce around conference rooms and inside of PowerPoint presentations. When we critically reflect upon how an organization makes sense of reality, we need to be able to go deep into what we mean by saying words like “emergence”. Do they offer the explanation we mean- or do we mean something else. Do we know what we are saying when we use a term? Should we apply deeper understanding to gain valuable insight into what an organization can see, and what it might be blind to?
 Russell Ackoff, “What’s Wrong with ‘What’s Wrong With,’” Interfaces 33, no. 5 (October 2003): 81.