The Concept of Emergence

Nassim Taleb in his latest book Skin in the Game describes the three flaws of interventionistas as follows:

Their three flaws: 1) They think in statics not dynamics, 2) they think in low, not high dimensions, 3) they think in actions, never interactions.
The first flaw is that they are incapable in thinking in second steps and unaware of the need for it –and about every peasant in Mongolia, every waiter in Madrid, and every car service operator in San Francisco knows that real life happens to have second, third, fourth, nth steps.
The second flaw is that they are also incapable of distinguishing between multidimensional problems and their single dimensional representations –like multidimensional health and its stripped, cholesterol-reading reduced representation. They can’t get the idea that, empirically, complex systems do not have obvious one dimensional cause and effects mechanisms, and that under opacity, you do not mess with such a system. An extension of this defect: they compare the actions of the “dictator” to the prime minister of Norway or Sweden, not to those of the local alternative.
The third flaw is that they can’t forecast the evolution of those one helps by attacking.

The concept of emergence is central to understanding complex systems and a powerful mental model to have in your toolkit. It also prevents you from being a sucker when dealing with complex systems and misattributing causality.

The simplest definition of emergence, from New England Complex Systems Institute, is as follows:

Emergence refers to the existence or formation of collective behaviors — what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone.

Here are some of the best articles I’ve read on emergence.

Concepts: Emergence, New England Complex Systems Institute (3 min read)
A concise introduction to emergence

Emergence: A unifying theme for 21st century science (13 min read)
This is an excellent historical account of how emergence as a concept entered the scientific lexicon by David Pines, the co-founder of Santa Fe Institute

Emergence of simplicity and complexity (4 min read)
An elegant discussion on how emergence can manifest itself as both simplicity and complexity by Yaneer Bar-Yam, President of the New England Complex Systems Institute

A Crude Look at the Whole: A Simple Guide to Complexity for National Security Professionals (16 min read)
The concepts of complexity and emergence against the backdrop of geopolitics in a connected world

Fish, Brains, and Human Nature: More on Structure vs. Culture (5 min read)
Emergence applied to group behavior and innovation

Where You Cannot Generalize from Knowledge of Parts (7 min read)
Nassim Taleb on reductionists and understanding complex systems

On Interventionistas and their Mental Defects (7 min read)
Nassim Taleb on why naive interventions in complex systems are a bad idea

Quasiparticles and the Miracle of Emergence (9 min read)
Brian Skinner on quasiparticles and how electrons actually move through solids

Characterizing Emergent Phenomena (Review Paper)
A comprehensive review of the various ways of characterizing emergent phenomena. Slightly advanced stuff presented in an accessible manner

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