I love this so much.
I hear the word “emergence” in a very specific context: complexity science, a cross-disciplinary paradigm that is an important lens through which I see the world. It also has a lot to say about life.
Complexity and Emergence
Complexity scientists study complex systems, in which interactions among independent units give rise to overarching structures and patterns. Classic examples include the human brain or an ant-hill. The human brain houses a neural network consisting of tens of billions of neurons, which interact through relatively simple electrochemical signals but collectively give rise to the full depth and range of human intelligence and creativity. Ants obey fairly simple behavioral rules, but these collectively give rise to complex colonies. The most fascinating systems to me are complex adaptive systems (CAS), in which “agents” have the ability to study their environment and learn from their interactions. The global economy is a CAS, as are all political systems. I have spent much of my adult life studying complex wars, in which multiple “sides” maneuver for strategic advantage in cauldrons of political violence.
Complexity science provides a helpful way to think and reason about the world, but it also provides tools to help scientists model these phenomena. Traditionally, scientists have modeled complex systems using a “top down” series of equations. For example, scientists studying traffic jams might model them by inputting the number of cars and highway capacity into an equation that outputs an average driving speed.
Complexity scientists model “from the bottom up.” They might write a software program to model an individual car, noting such details as a driver’s reaction time to a car braking in front of her. They would then unleash a bunch of these programmatic cars in a virtual world and watch what happens. Realistic, familiar patterns of stop-and-go traffic emerge.
Emergence results from innumerable interactions among agents pursuing micro-level behaviors. We find it everywhere in both the natural and social worlds, and it is a wellspring of wonder. A forest, with its unfathomable diversity of symbiotic species, is the emergent outcome of individual plants and animals trying to survive and reproduce. I am currently reading Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial Underland, which includes an astonishing discussion of the living subterranean mesh of tree roots and fungi that allow trees to care for their sick, warn of predators, and exchange resources in times of need. I find equally magical the emergent patterns in urban metropolises.
Living with Emergence
So why would a writer like Joanna Penn have “trust emergence” written over desk, and why would those words resonate so deeply with me?
Complex systems have frustrating properties. For starters, you can’t control them from the top down. Each change you make triggers reactions and counter-reactions that may be difficult or impossible to understand or predict. That’s why planned economies rarely work. And unfortunately, many aspects of our personal lives play out within complex systems. I have spent inordinate amounts of time writing up life strategies, charting out goals, and pondering how to attain certain life outcomes. These can be helpful sometimes but life rarely goes according to plan.
Trusting emergence gives us permission to live bottom-up instead of top-down. It shifts our perspective towards the immediate now. We worry less about system-level outcomes, and focus more on (1) individual behaviors and (2) local interactions.
In our productivity-focused culture, we talk a lot about the former. James Clear’s Atomic Habits makes the strong case that, paradoxically, to improve outcomes we should worry less about outcomes and focus more on daily habits. When we get the habits right, goodness emerges. For me as a writer, that means worrying less about my long-term writing career and focusing more on sitting down to write each day. This shift brings a healthier, purer way to live. We worry less about the future. We focus on activities that bring us joy and meaning, which delivers us more often into states of flow.
But it gets better, because improving our individual behaviors is only half the story. Emergent magic happens through our interactions with others. The wondrous world around us shimmers into its full capacities as neurons exchange signals, ants follow pheromone trails left by their predecessors, or two friends exchange powerful insights over a drink.
Trusting emergence points us towards a certain kind of life: a life characterized by deep connectedness, of seeking out others, of continual rich exchange, and of mutual learning. The more we connect, the more room we create for emergence to work its magic. And as it turns out, we have considerable evidence that this is the most fulfilling way to live.
As I sat down to write this post, I was surprised to discover that the phrase “trust emergence” did not apparently originate with complexity science at all, but rather with meditation teacher Gregory Kramer, as part of a practice he calls Insight Dialogue. He writes:
To Trust Emergence is to enter practice without the bias of a goal. This does not mean we do not hope for better communication, wise relationships, or the emergence of collective intelligence, compassion, or peace. Rather, we recognize that we don’t know what these things really are or how they can be attained, and we give our full and energetic commitment only to this moment of experience. The images and judgments that hinder clear and fluid awareness are set aside, freeing our natural intelligence.
Perhaps Gregory Kramer studied complexity science at some point. Or perhaps, as so often occurs, our most brilliant contemporary scientists “discovered” a truth that our wisdom teachers have been quietly holding for millennia.
Of course, caveats are in order. Emergent phenomena can be good or bad. Social media’s crippling polarization of Americans is a particularly extreme case in point. We must be wise, both as individuals and as citizens helping construct the laws, norms, and institutions that guide our bumbling complex democracy along into the future.
Still, I find the idea of trusting emergence magical. It is a good way to live.