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The whole is more than the sum of its parts

Jul 15, 2013

When notes are put together in a certain way, beautiful music emerges. A beautiful sculpture emerges when pieces of metal are shaped and and soldered in a particular way. The beauty of art is guided by human creativity and aesthetics. But nature puts pieces together too. When two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom come together, the properties of water -- wetness, fluidity -- emerge.  When neurons interact in particular ways, mental events like thoughts and memories emerge.
Fluidity isn't contained in the individual hydrogen or oxygen atom.  Similarly, there’s nothing ‘thought-like’ about a neuron. But when many neurons are wired together and interact in a certain way, mental events emerge. The mystery of brain and mind is an example of the larger mystery of emergence. And that mystery is all around us. When things combine in certain ways, unforeseeable properties are born.

Right now I’m listening to one of Bach’s Masses. One of his short masses that doesn’t get much attention. Beautiful still. My experience of the music is the result of neurons within the auditory cortex and other regions of my brain firing in particular patterns. If you were to anesthetize those neurons and stop them from firing, the music (that is, my experience of it) would stop.  The music I hear emerges from neuronal interactions.

But the music also emerges from the notes that Bach penned over 300 years ago. Many voices and instruments are sounding at once, each with their own melodic line. Each of these lines is comprised of notes, and slight changes in the pattern of notes would change the melody in important ways. A change in even one of the melodic lines of the Mass would change the overall musical work.

There was a time when ideas of emergence and reductionism captured my imagination. Nowadays, I’m happy to exist on the holistic level of emergent phenomena. I enjoy Bach’s Mass, the sip of my coffee, the checkered blue pattern of the little Morrocan coffee table in front of me, the one that I bought years ago on Broadway. I’m less enamored of the physical processes underlying each of these mental perceptions. The emergent experiences are enjoyable however they’re occurring. This morning I’m a Buddhist dwelling in a world of emergent properties.