Honours course taught at the bachelor level at the University of Amsterdam
Lecturers: Jácome Armas, Wout Merbis, Soroush Rafiee Rad and Sebastian De Haro
Work colleges: Tommaso Lamma and Tommaso Pettinari
DIEP@UvA is offering the third instalment of the bachelors course on Emergence starting in April 2023 (see the first year here). The course is divided intro three parts: (1) philosophy of emergence, (2) statistical physics approach and (3) emergence in social contexts. The course covers examples of emergence in physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science and logic. These range from magnets, neurons, traffic networks, epidemic models, polarisation models to seggregation models.
Nowadays, emergence is a word that is used vaguely in almost all sciences and in many instances used to refer to a process or a property of some system whose origin is unknown. If we look around with our own eyes we perceive forms, shapes, and matter that are smooth and continuous. But had we used a microscope we would notice that all mater around us is made of small atoms and molecules that are bumping into each other or organised into certain structures. Under the microscope, the world is far from smooth and continuous. Yet, once many atoms and molecules are put together, a smooth and continuous structure emerges. How and why did that happen? The answer is far from obvious.
What is emergence? Contrary to what one may naively expect, this question turns out to be crucial for science. Understanding instances of emergence in science usually leads to substantial progress while understanding emergence more broadly is important for the unity of science itself. How is physics related to chemistry? And chemistry to biology? And psychology to social behaviour? These questions remain open to this day exactly because it is very hard in general to understand how the interactions of many individual constitutes (atoms, molecules, people, etc) can lead to unexpected and surprising collective behaviour.
Before emergence became part of the domain of science, it was already an integral part of philosophy. Philosophers for about a couple of centuries have attempted at understanding and defining exactly what emergence means, in particular in the context of philosophy of mind. How can all the parts of our brain and body conspire to give rise to consciousness and subjectivity? Or is it the case that consciousness is just there from the beginning and using our power of free will we can simply tell the brain and body how to act?
This course has the purpose of making emergence more concrete, not only at a conceptual and philosophical level but also at a mathematical and modelling level. Mathematical analysis and computer modelling of different systems from physics, biology to social sciences can make the study of emergence detailed and concrete. It is possible to model different agents, which act according to specific rules, and look at the result of their interactions. Those interactions give rise to new structures that need in many cases a new language for their description and that description is what emerges. From the analysis of many examples, one can perform general conceptual and philosophical analysis to extract generic lessons of what emergence really means and how that can help us better understand the world.