Turning Verbs into Adjectives
While we do it mostly by adding the suffix [-ing] (and maybe tweaking the spelling), we sometimes add [-ent] (or [-ant]) instead. There is a subtle but important difference when we turn [emerge] into an adjective. Leaves emerge and then go about the business of growing and photosynthesizing. It would be a little better to say that my photo shows “emerging leaves” because there is no “and then” for emergent things. They just are emergent. What they emerge from is still there.
For example, look again at my photo, not as leaves but as an image. It emerges from about 700,000 pixels encoded with about 480 KB of data in JPEG format. That matters if I want to e-mail it to somebody who pays for data flow over a slow connection. For many other purposes, to fret about the underlying pixels and bytes is a waste of effort. The shapes and colors and composition are not in the pixels themselves. They emerge from the way the pixels are arranged and interact with each other and the viewer.
My mild misuse of the [-ent] suffix for emerging leaves is a point of departure for considering bigger issues, not just a bow to the exact wording of Patrick Jennings’ challenge:
Once we start looking for emergent things, we find that the world teems with them. (Water, ice, and steam all emerge from crowds of the same kind of molecule.) We find that fretting about “ultimate reality” may well be as pointless as trying to understand my photo by always diving down into those 480 KB and never looking at the emergent image. While some contexts demand a deep dive, others demand a shallow one.
One of many places with examples and discussion of various emergent phenomena is Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which somehow manages to be a good read (and a mostly easy one) despite dealing with deep stuff in science and philosophy while being fair to other viewpoints.
While nothing in science is nailed down as tightly as 3+2 = 5 in math, there is much evidence that we are in a tiny corner of a vast universe that goes its own way with no overall design or purpose or supernatural intervention. Can we live fully and righteously in a cosmos that does not give a rat’s ass about beauty or goodness? In much more detail than I can hope to put into a blog post, Carroll argues that we can. Emergence is part of the story.
Tho a little queasy about Carroll’s use of the phrase [poetic naturalism] to name his upbeat attitude in the face of knowledge that would depress many people, I can’t think of a better name or a better attitude.
Don’t despair if love and justice seem as fanciful as unicorns when U consider only the underlying dance of atoms and molecules. Love and justice may be real enough, but emergent.