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January 22, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Agent Above, Atom Below: How agents causally emerge from their underlying microphysics by Erik P Hoel [refresh]
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Author Erik P Hoel wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 17:31 GMT
Essay Abstract

Some physical entities, which we often refer to as agents, can be described as having intentions and engaging in goal-oriented behavior. Yet agents can also be described in terms of low-level dynamics that are mindless, intention-less, and without goals or purpose. How we can reconcile these seemingly disparate levels of description? This is especially problematic because the lower scales at first appear more fundament in three ways: in terms of their causal work, in terms of the amount of information they contain, and their theoretical superiority in terms of model choice. However, recent research bringing information theory to bear on modeling systems at different scales significantly reframes the issue. I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics. This is particularly true of agents because they are autopoietic and possess (apparent) teleological causal relationships.

Author Bio

Erik P Hoel is a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. He received his PhD in neuroscience working under Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Having grown up in his family’s bookstore, he occasionally writes fiction and essays for various publications. His scientific research involves applying measures of emergence and consciousness to the cortex.

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Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 01:13 GMT
My goodness, what a remarkable essay! Thanks! Truly tidy! I'd like to ask a question. The description of how to change from one scale to the next is clear, and also the fact that the causal relations between macrostates do not directly supervene on causal relations between microstates. The point I still have doubts is about the emergence of agency. You point out the crucial role of interacting with the environment. If I get you right, you claim that such interactions are a necessary condition for goals to emerge (did I get you right?). What I am not sure, is whether you also claim they are sufficient, I tend to believe they are not. Did you make a claim on this point? If you did, could you indicate me exactly where it is? If you didn't, what conditions do you believe that are necessary to impose to the interaction with the environment for agency and goals to appear?

Thanks again!


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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 04:16 GMT
Thank you so much Ines! I'm glad you found it interesting and I'm so glad the points about supervenience and causal relationships came across.

Concerning your question about whether just being open to the environment is *sufficient* for goals to emerge. I think you are entirely correct: being open to the environment is not sufficient for goals, although it is necessary. Rather, in my view, sometimes entities outsource their causal structure to the environment such that it will appear as if teleology is at work.

I didn't go into too much detail on exactly how goals themselves are structured. My focus was rather on whether those goals are causally efficacious above and beyond their alternative microscale goal-less descriptions. But I think you're right that there must be some set of conditions in the interactions with the environment in order for agency and goals to appear. This will in general vary, but I think a few key things can be picked out in this framework: for instance, the goals must have paths that are modifiable (able to be accomplished in multiply realizable ways) which is what allows them to error-correct and thus contribute that extra macroscale causal/informational oomph.

Thanks for reading!

Erik P Hoel

Ines Samengo replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 10:30 GMT
So this is how I see it. You provide some necessary conditions, probably not all. Natesh (who commented below) provided some sufficient conditions for learning, though he might have been a bit too strict (maybe there can be agency with less). We are not quite there yet, but we seem to be narrowing it down. In turn, Sophia Magnusdottir discussed the role of learning about the environment and about...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 13:46 GMT
Thanks Ines - good call, I'll check out all those essays.



Stefan Weckbach wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 04:25 GMT
Dear Erik Hoel,

your essay is quite interesting to me, because it discusses the emergence of new causal powers at some higher hierarchical levels. Your identification of the core concept as error correction is interesting to me. It seems that it indicates that nature, and especially the feature of time, is a consequence of nature's metalaw to keep up the consistence of propositional logic. Therefore, according to my own analysis (see my essay), it follows that a mere reductionistic description of nature must remain essentially incomplete.

Thanks for a thought-provoking essay!

Best wishes,

Stefan Weckbach

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:12 GMT
Thank you so much Stefan. I just read (and voted for) your essay, and I love how you're also discussing macrostates. I particularly like your analogy of how entropy (or irreversibility) arises only at the macroscale, and saying that this is analogous to how goals arise solely at the macroscale. In my view, the corollary analogy would be in terms of error-correction: only error-correction for...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:35 GMT
Hey Stefan! Sorry I accidentally posted this comment to you - it's addressed to the other Stefan below (lots of Stefans, all with good essays!)

Just finished and voted for your essay: "In Search of the Meaning of Meaning." I agree with your setup of the problem. I certainly agree that one of the big missing ingredients is consciousness, and we don't exactly know what a theory of consciousness would look like right now (although check out Integrated Information Theory for the best one yet, in my biased opinion). You clearly argue that the eliminativist position for consciousness entails the elimination of goals and meaning, which I would generally agree with. Although I wouldn't agree that we need to bring god into the equation - I think consciousness is mysterious enough! I'd like to see your statement about propositional logic more worked out -> although I agree that it's possible that some things only really exist on the macroscale.

Sorry again for the Stefan-related mixup - thanks for the comment and the essay!

Member George F. R. Ellis wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 05:16 GMT
Dear Eric,

this is a great essay, tackling key issues of the theme topic head on by taking emergence seriously. It is a great companion to my own essay, which looks at the microphysical structures which make such emergence possible.

Just one comment: multiple realisability is indeed fundamental to real emergence, as you clearly state. With Auletta and Jaeger I have argued that this is a key marker of top-down causation, which is in my view a key feature enabling the genuine emergence you discuss. This is developed further in my book that you mention.


George Ellis

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Anonymous replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 16:08 GMT
Hi George - so great to talk to you and so nice of you to comment.

You're right that your essay makes a very nice compliment - just read and voted for it now. I particularly liked your focus on biomolecules as logic gates.

I was interested in something you said in the comments of your own essay, which is how you no longer use the term top-down causation? I talk a bit about this in the technical notes: I agree that the term top-down causation can be confusing. Most people think of it as: if x supervenes on y at time t, then x determines the state of y (or influences it) also at the same time point t. But this is a logical impossibility. So I think the layering analogy is more apt for describing what's really going on. The challenge to the layer cake hypothesis (all causal structure is across different spatiotemporal scales) is making sure that gerrymandered or redundant scales aren't included: that entities aren't multiplied beyond necessity.

All the best - thanks so much for the read and the essay,

Erik P Hoel

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 16:15 GMT
Not sure why I got logged out and posted as anonymous (I keep having technical problems with my FQXi comments haha) but that's really me!

Member George F. R. Ellis replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 07:25 GMT
Hi Erik

Thanks for that.

Well I have been persuaded that it may be better to talk about causation as horizontal, emergence as bottom up, and realisation as top-down. But partly its to do with the three different (interelated) aspects of emergence: evolutionary, developmental, and functional. The first two are diachronic and the last synchronic. It is in the third case that the issue of supervenience arises.

However what is important is still the issue that it is the higher levels that decide what will be done and the lower levels that carry out the work, which your group have discussed in terms of higher levels having greater causal powers than lower levels. That is a key aspect.

Best regards


(they log you out after a while I think and you have to log in again)

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Natesh Ganesh wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 05:34 GMT
Hi Erik,

This is a very well written and interesting essay. I enjoyed you writing on the clear distinction between the micro and macro-scale (and reminded me to read more about causal emergence). It will take me a few readings to fully take in the equations for effective information, etc, but I agree with you on most points. I have your paper on macro beating micro opened up- the result sounds very intriguing. I too study agents using stochastic Markov finite state models and found the section on teleology very encouraging.

I have a submission titled 'Intention is Physical', which I think you might enjoy, especially the part on prediction and error-correction. Take a look if you have the chance and any comments/questions/feedback is always welcome.



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 16:41 GMT
Hey Natesh! Thanks for getting in touch. So excellent to hear that you're interested in causal emergence - I totally agree that working with simple definable systems (like Markov processes) is the way to go. We can all wave our hands about emergence until the end of time but until you really drill down and give proof of principle examples I think it's always going to be wishy washy. So I really appreciate the rigorous approach in your own essay (just read and voted for). I'm going to take a few reads to grok all the math (I've been meaning to get more into Friston too; your essay is a nice compliment to his ideas).

I was especially interested in your statement of "We can view the upper levels of the hierarchical model in the brain as the source of only intentions and make a strong case that intention is physical." I would like to see that done out directly: looking at upper vs lower levels and seeing how dissipation is being done at each scale.

All the best - glad you got in contact, and thanks for the read and the essay,

Erik P Hoel

Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 13:53 GMT
Dear Erik,

this is a nice essay. I particularly like your example in which the "lag time" is greater than the "turnover rate of the microscopic building blocks". While writing my essay I also thought about this property of typical agents to continuously replace their microscopic components -- but I decided to ignore this aspect. Do you think that this property is necessary for a macroscopic entity to become an agent?

I require that entities are not "too rigid" (yes, I only vaguely define this notion) if they are to become an agent. Being too rigid (in this sense) would in particular exclude replacement of micro-elements, though that was not my primary reason for imposing this condition.

Cheers, Stefan

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:28 GMT
Whoops! Replied to the wrong Stefan above -> Lots of Stefans in this contest (all with good essays - correlation or causation?)

Thank you so much Stefan. I just read (and voted for) your essay, and I love how you're also discussing macrostates. I particularly like your analogy of how entropy (or irreversibility) arises only at the macroscale, and saying that this is analogous to how goals arise solely at the macroscale. In my view, the corollary analogy would be in terms of error-correction: only error-correction for causal relationships can occur at the macroscale.

You bringing rigidity into this in your essay is an interesting avenue - I didn't explore what multiple-realizability means for the physical properties (only the causal/informational ones). It makes me think it's worth investigating whether there are certain physical requirements (necessities) for causal emergence to occur.

All the best!

Erik P Hoel

James Arnold wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:16 GMT

This is a brilliant exposition of the irreducibility of goal-oriented behavior. But as a rationalization of agent causal emergence it inevitably fails. Romeo’s goal-oriented desire isn’t contained in the combined deterministic structure of behavior of agent in environment; the teleology, the final cause, is presupposed by the determined causal steps he takes to achieve his end.

Think of a robotic vacuum. It can be observed to perform its relentless roaming around the floor as a fully determined causal system. But its actions presuppose the teleology of its designer to provide a product for their customer, and the teleology of the owner to clean the floor.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:44 GMT
Hey James - thanks so much for the compliment.

I think you're right that the case of Romeo isn't explored enough, although I disagree that it fails as an example of a certain type of causal emergence.

If I had to sum up my point with Romeo's brain, it's that causal relationships don't always inhere locally to the system itself -> IF you considered the system in isolation, you'd totally miss that there are causal relationships *within* that system (or between parts of it). In the language of analytic philosophy, I'd say that causal relationships that don't supervene locally (which Romeo's brain is an example of) are those we should call teleological. So in this sense, the causal path between his desire to kiss and the act of kissing *is* deterministic (if you trigger the desire to kiss, Romeo inevitably makes his way to his Juliet). I'm not sure exactly what you mean in saying that the relationship presupposed all the causal steps he takes to achieve his end. I don't think it had to because the causal steps are precisely multiply-realizable (the path is variable). I suspect that this (reasonable) disagreement may concern semantics: should we really call this teleology, or just the appearance of it?

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment James!

Helder Lines Velez wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 16:23 GMT

Two questions:

Why the terms linear/nonlinear are absent from the text and why use 'information', more useful in digital representation, than Signal/Noise more adequate to the analog world we inhabit (and concepts like negative feedback, transfer function, etc).

The low level description obeys to linear equations, where...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 18:00 GMT
Hi Helder!

Good question about why I'm using discrete and finite systems formalize causal emergence, rather than analog concepts (like feedback, etc). The first reason is that this allows supervening scales to be easily defined and modeled. For instance, one can generate the full space {S} of possible supervening descriptions of any particular system, and then search across that space, as we did in Hoel et al. (2013) "Quantifying causal emergence." Another reason is that information theory, such as mutual information is most often represented as between two finite and discrete variables. A third is that the causal calculus of Pearl is also often represented in terms of Markov chains. So showing how these all can be synthesized is much more direct in these types of systems (applicable to things like cellular automata, etc).

But this doesn't mean linearity / nonlinearity and related concepts doesn't come into play, it just wasn't addressed in this essay. See Hoel (2016) "When the map is better than the territory" of a discussion on how symmetry breaking is critical for causal emergence.

Thanks so much for reading!

Erik P Hoel

Robin Berjon wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 17:07 GMT
Hi Erik,

first and foremost: congratulations on an excellent essay! I was unaware of your work on causal emergence; I will proceed to reading it post haste. I had also had Judea Pearl's monograph on causality on my reading list for quite a while, I have now bumped it up.

My only criticism, but it may be due to something I have misread, is that you equate purposive agency with causal emergence but never clearly state it. It feels as if you have the answer to the initial question but stop just short of explicitly stating it (even though it can be rather readily inferred).

In my (less learned) essay I also rely on mutual information to see agency emerging through its intersection with purpose as a process, but I do so within the framework of the Information Theory of Individuality (which claims notably that the levels can be detected without a priori knowledge of their existence). I would be curious to hear your thoughts as to how ITI relates to causal emergence.

Finally, you say that "Struck by Cupid’s arrow, Romeo will indefinitely pursue his goal of kissing Juliet, and to the experimenter’s surprise Sd will inexorably, almost magically, always lead to Sk." Would you conclude that this indefinite pursuance of love constitutes Romeostasis? (Sorry. Really, really sorry.)

Thanks a lot!

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 17:39 GMT
Hi Robin - thanks for commenting. Never apologize for a pun, I loved it.

In terms of purposive behavior and causal emergence; causal emergence can occur without purposive behavior. But I think purposive behavior couldn't exist without there being accompanying causal emergence. I hope it's clear that I think agents causally emerge, assisted by their purposive behavior.

I just read and voted for your essay, and I think it is actually a great overview of some really serious issues. Good to see Smolin, Krakauer, and Braitenberg all tied together in one essay. As to your question about ITI (which I had not heard of until now, so thank you), I remember meeting Krakauer in 2016 and he briefly said it was impossible for there to be any extra information at the macroscale (which, if you're only considering macroscales as zipped compressions is definitely true; however, the theory of causal emergence points out that they can be encodings, not just compressions) so I know he didn't have causal emergence in mind in defining ITI. However, I do think ITI sounds useful for defining the boundaries of systems (another choice is its anagram, IIT: Integrated Information Theory).

Thanks so much for your comment and your essay!

Erik P Hoel

Daniel de França Diniz Rocha wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 23:05 GMT
Dear Erik,

Great Essay! The way you address physical entities, called agents, seem to be related to what I called operators, as I defined in my essay:

Both of them are defined with autopoesis functions in mind, though I isolate a specific type of reaction which I believed gave birth to life on earth, which are benchmarks where chemical clocks regulate themselves. They'd have the whole oceans for them and they'd evolve at first by struggling to be stable against perturbation.

I'd like to know your view, so that I can build a positive feedback.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 15:44 GMT
Thanks Daniel, I appreciate it.

I made a comment on your essay so we can have the discussion there - thanks for linking!

Erik P Hoel

Cristinel Stoica wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 08:37 GMT
Dear Erik,

Excellent essay, I liked it very much, both how it is written, and the ideas. The result that open emergent systems can be able to win the fight with the underlying, more fundamental level which apparently gives us all the reasons to think it will make them very unstable, seems to me a breakthrough, a long awaited answer to an important question. Congratulations! If I understand well, this solves the tension between fundamental lower levels and emergent levels without the latter having to break causality of the possible microstates of the former, by using loops that include the environment. A similar tension, but not necessarily related to agents with goals, happens between the classical level and the quantum level, where the quantum level determines the classical level but at the same time it is constrained by it. Unfortunately, in this case it seems there is no way to solve the tension without the quantum level giving up in the face of the classical level, by the wavefunction collapse (I think this has some problems, e.g. it breaks the conservation laws, but there is another way, I explained it in this older essay).

Best regards,

Cristi Stoica

The Tablet of the Metalaw

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 14:21 GMT
Thanks so much Cristi - so glad you found it enjoyable. You immediately hit on one of most interesting questions of this research: how do we related the causal work of the microstates to that of the macrostates. We don't want to multiply entities beyond necessity and have things be overdetermined. There's a few different options - you're right that when it comes to teleological causation (as outlined here) there's less conflict. Just in general causal overfittig and underfitting are nice schemas that outline how it may be non-overlapping in some cases. I give two further options in the endnotes: supercedence (macro entirely constrains or controls micro) or layering (macro contributes what it does above and beyond the micro but micro also contributes). Both of these are viable positions: we argued supersedence in the first paper on causal emergence (Hoel et al 2013) and I argued layering in the second (Hoel 2016).

I just read and greatly enjoyed your own essay - great explanation of how to "zoom" in and out of the different scales and what that means in terms of coarse-grains and thermodynamics. At some point the research on causal emergence should be connected to thermodynamics, given exactly what you're talking about.

Thanks again!

Erik P Hoel

Jack Hamilton James wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 09:47 GMT
Dear Erik,

I really enjoyed part 4. "Teleology as breaks in the internal causal chain" so thank you.

Is it essentially an account of how causes can cause us to think there is purpose is causes? If our brain was in a vat we wouldnt have teleology, much like we wouldnt know stuff far away from the vat?

Thanks Jack

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 18:51 GMT
Thanks very much Jack.

To answer your question: I wouldn't say that the brain in a vat has no teleology, I'd say it does, it's just that its causal relationships don't locally supervene (you couldn't find them no matter how hard you looked). So it's precisely by comparing brains in vats to brains in bodies that you see the causal structure of the brain is actually much more rich than it first appears in isolation. It's those non-locally supervening causal relationships that are teleological (or, if you want to hedge, merely appear teleological)

Will check out your essay post-haste,

All the best,

Erik P Hoel

William L Stubbs wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 16:51 GMT
Dr. Hoel,

You have composed a very impressive discussion about the workings of agents and the role they play in pursuing goals and intentions. Your hierarchy of science, in some ways, parallels the line of thought I chose to develop in my essay.

One thing that I seem to miss (although it may be there and I am just not aware of it) is that, your central theme is ‘How agents causally emerge from their underlying microphysics,’ but you never really address the theme. You never say how they emerge; at least, I did not see it in the essay. In fact, in your abstract you state,

“I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics,”

but in Section 5 of your essay you say,

“Ultimately, this means that attempting to describe an agent down at the level of atoms will always be a failure of causal model fitting.”

The two statements appear contradictory to me. I will concede that I am not knowledgeable in this field, and the consistency may either escape me or be beyond me.

Can you say in a brief summary paragraph how agents causally emerge from their underlying microphysics?


Bill Stubbs.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 19:07 GMT
Thanks for the read Bill! I'm not sure why those two things would be contradictory in your mind. But I suspect it might have something to do with how I'm using the word "emergence" and what you associate with it.

It's worth noting that emergence can be used semantically in two ways (above you can see George Ellis's comment about this as well). You can use it to say "the patterns emerged from the simple chemical interaction." In this manner it usually means getting something complex from something very simple: it's fundamentally historical. This isn't the usage herein.

There is another way to talk about emergence. For instance, if I had a bunch of NOR logic gates, and I hooked them up to make a complicated circuit that enacts many different kinds of logic functions (like ORs and ANDs and NOTs), you would say that the circuit and other logic functions "emerged" from the underlying NOR gates. This is the way I use emergence in the paper.

Since you asked, here's a brief summary of causal emergence (takes in deep breath): the causal structure of systems can be treated mathematically as a communication channel over which states are sent over time (much like sending messages), and it turns out that describing/observing/intervening upon the system in terms of a higher scale can actually make the channel transmit more information because these higher-scale descriptions are a form of channel coding. Whoof!

Wilhelmus de Wilde wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 16:54 GMT
Dear Eric,

Beautiful essay, congratulations.

Your agents emerge from the quantum state, my reality (including agents) emerge from the state below the quantum scale, behind the wall of Planck.

So also the the quantum cale is an emergent phenomenon.

I wonder what your valued thoughts are of my contribution "The Purpose of Life

best regards

Wilhelmus de Wilde

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 20:00 GMT
Thanks very much Wilhelmus. I didn't explore anything down at the quantum level for my own essay. To me it seems that relying on quantum effects to explain agents is like trying to solve a single mystery by combining two mysteries, which generally just makes everything even more mysterious, but I'm eager to read your essay and find out. I will check it out there.

All the best,

Erik P Hoel

Robert Groess wrote on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 04:42 GMT
Dear Erik,

Thank you for your well written and detailed essay. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. As others have commented, I particularly agree with your analysis on emergence across multiple levels of scale and particularly liked the way you tied them all together in your conclusion, "purposeless microscale descriptions are like a low dimensional slice of a high dimensional object". I voted on your essay a few days ago, but just thought I'd give you a more detailed reply on how much I enjoyed it.



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 15:22 GMT
Thanks so much Robert! Very nice to hear it. Just finished your essay - I greatly enjoyed your breakdown of Maxwell's Demon, and it got me thinking about the long history of cases of trying to get something from nothing. In Maxwell's case, it's a violation of the 2nd law. I think for a long time people have thought of emergence in that way - it's almost like getting something from nothing, because how could you possibly gain any information or causal work going up to a macroscale? It seems like squeezing something from nothing, and I think it is this that's the intuitive force behind the "exclusion argument." But there's a few cases where some people have figured out how to squeeze something from nothing (metaphorically, obviously). One of those is Claude Shannon's noisy-channel theorem. At first it really seems a really noisy channel can only transmit very low amounts of information. Then Shannon showed that through channel coding the information can be radically increased - without altering the channel! By saying that causal emergence comes from treating a system's causal structure as a channel, and that macroscales are encodings for the channel, I'm piggy-backing on Shannon's "something from nothing" proof. So causal emergence is kind of like getting something something from nothing (without altering the system).

Anyways, just wanted to let you know your essay inspired me to think about it with a new analogy.

Thanks so much!

Erik P Hoel

Stefan Weckbach wrote on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 19:08 GMT
Dear Erik Hoel,

just rated your essay and gave it a high score. Your concept of causal emergence is intriguing and you should further investigate it. It also poses interesting teleological questions.

Best wishes,

Stefan Weckbach

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 19:45 GMT
Thanks so much Stefan, I'm so glad you found it intriguing. I definitely plan on investigating it further (when I find the time!). In terms of teleology, I think you're right. However, I'm always wary of those kinds of words, so my own personal stance is to try to explain what looks like teleology (apparent teleology) without coming to overt metaphysical conclusions.

Thanks so much for reading and rating!

Erik P Hoel

Ted Christopher wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 02:52 GMT
Hi Eric P. Hoel,

I offer a complementary suggestion. In addition to pushing along trying to elaborate on the usual assumptions, you might also pause and see what challenges those underlying assumptions. I have an essay that introduces some of the challenges facing the scientific vision of life,

If nothing else it might introduce some additional puzzles to mull over.

I hope things are going well for you.

Ted Christopher

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 15:44 GMT
Hi Ted - thanks so much for stopping by. I strongly agree that we all make assumptions.

I checked out your essay and was very glad to see you mention Rafael Yuste - he's my principal investigator here at Columbia University. I did want to say that, while I disagree with some of your examples seriously challenging contemporary neuroscience, I absolutely agree with you that little attention has been paid in neuroscience to the consequences of hydrocephalus. IF it's true that people are operating normally but have drastically reduced gray matter (such as 10 to 20%) we're going to need to drastically rethink some things. However, if I remember correctly recent research has questioned these numbers.

Thanks so much for reading!

Erik P Hoel

Member George F. R. Ellis wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 05:05 GMT
Dear Erik

please note the following very interesting paper: Epiphenomenalism – the Do’s and the Don’ts by Larry Shapiro and Elliott Sober



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 14:44 GMT
Thanks so much George! Actually, Larry was on my PhD thesis committee at UW-Madison. He does excellent work.

There's a handful of analytic philosophers who have thought about these issues, starting with Yablo. There's also List and Menzies, as well as Shapiro and Sober. All these people do incredible work and have all touched on issues related to causal emergence at some point or another,...

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Joe Fisher replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 15:42 GMT
Dear Dr. Erik P Hoel,

Please excuse me for I have no intention of disparaging in any way any part of your essay.

I merely wish to point out that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate.

Only nature could produce a reality so simple, a single cell amoeba could deal with it.

The real Universe must consist only of one unified visible infinite physical surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light.

A more detailed explanation of natural reality can be found in my essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY. I do hope that you will read my essay and perhaps comment on its merit.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Joseph Murphy Brisendine wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 01:54 GMT
Hi Erik

Your essay is awesome, you basically crushed it. The point about the kinetics of the system and the signal propagation time setting scales for "identity" was the first point that I found truly insightful, it reminded me of the idea that if we wanted to imagine something crazy like the universe being one big mind then it would never be able to actually finish a thought because it is expanding faster than it is possible to send signals back and forth across its entirety, and probably can't cross the percolation threshold for correlations as a result. The other point I loved was about needing to include the environment in Romeo's causal structure. In the phenomenological tradition, it was clear since Husserl that "consciousness" can only ever be "consciousness of phenomena", it's only really since philosophy of mind took this very ahistorical turn against "reductionism", I feel, that we lost sight of this fact. All of your other claims are correct, lucid, and I think should be uncontroversial for anyone familiar with modern neuroscience, information theory or stochastic dynamics. But it's exceptionally well-argued and clear. If you have a moment to look at my own entry at any point, I think we make many of the same arguments though I wrote in a somewhat different style. In any case I'd appreciate any feedback you could offer.

Again, total slayer of an essay.


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Author Erik P Hoel wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 16:07 GMT
Thanks so much Joe - highly appreciate it. Although I wouldn't say any of this is "uncontroversial"! Try getting funding for it hahaha.

I just finished your essay, which I enjoyed, particularly your writing. There's lots of stuff going on in there but just wanted to mention the relationship to my own essay here, which is your segment on higher-level explanations. You say: "In this way, we compress our explanations of phenomena, with the useful result that they can be communicated and shared with fewer bits, thus requiring less work to understand."

I completely agree - this is totally necessary for human communication, or something like science where we communicate facts or data to one another. What I argue in my essay is that there's another possibility for an information theory metaphor beyond just compression for these types of cases: coding. So higher-level explanations aren't always *merely* compressions, sometimes they are also codes; in addition to being compressed, they also error-correct, meaning they can have in theory more information than whatever underlies them.

Thanks for commenting, and I enjoyed your essay,

Erik P Hoel

Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 03:23 GMT

Point taken about the funding! I'm going to be looking for a new job in the coming months and perhaps I'm just trying to be overly optimistic about how popular the worldview expressed in your essay really is! Also I managed not to notice that you are at Columbia the first time I looked this over, we collaborate with the Banta group and the Venkataraman group on different projects, and I'm literally a subway stop north of you. Feel free to come see our lab at City anytime. We design proteins and characterize them with spectroscopy; we have lots of cool lasers.

And we should discuss coding in biology while you're there too. I didn't focus on it in my essay because it didn't fit neatly into my narrative, but I completely agree that coding or perhaps more generally "translation" of information is an ubiquitous phenomenon that is not merely compression from coarse-graining but involves emergent dynamics from interactions that do not appear in the local microscopic dynamics. I think the genetic code is actually the perfect example of that. I taught a course at city college on principles of statistical physics in biology and we spent a week or so discussing what makes translation of nucleic acids into proteins a much more interesting and physically difficult to explain phenomenon than transcription of DNA to RNA. The translation step is what makes it a code rather than just chemistry, because there is no direct structural connection between a codon and an amino acid, and the code only appears when you look at the correlations in the network structure. I actually have a ton of thoughts on this issue and I'd love to pick your brain too and since you're just up the street I think we should probably make it happpen!


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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 18:55 GMT
Sorry Joe - I missed this reply when it came in. Yes! Absolutely! As we're so close we should actually grab a drink sometime to chat as well. Expect an email (or shoot me one) at some point soon.


Member Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 17:38 GMT
Dear Erik,

I also find your essay excellent and very stimulating. A few questions.

The emergence of (apparently) purposeful behavior, intentions, goals, agency, is clearly a complexity booster, and it would be great if we could see it at work even in discrete, finite, *deterministic* formal systems, below the level of biology.

In my mind, one of the best examples of emergence...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 18:42 GMT
Thanks so much for the close read Tommaso! You ask some really great questions - so forgive the lack of brevity in my replies!

"one of the best examples of emergence is represented by the ‘digital particles’ of cellular automata (Conway’s GoL gliders, Wolfram’s ECA 110 trajectories), and you do mention them in your essay. However, those are completely deterministic systems, while...

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Alan M. Kadin wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 02:21 GMT
Dear Dr. Hoel,

I am quite interested in your essay, with its emphasis on the emergence of agency from lower-level structures.

I also address the issue of agency in my own essay, “No Ghost in the Machine”. However, rather than a vague spontaneous emergence at some level of complexity, I argue that recognition of self, other agents, and a causal narrative are built into specific evolved brain structures that create the sense of consciousness as part of a dynamic model of the environment. The reason that this is such a difficult problem is that we are being misled by the subjective perceptions of our own minds.

Alan Kadin

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 14:10 GMT
Thanks so much Alan for reading. I don't think of this as a form of vague or spontaneous emergence - it's quite structured and non-arbitrary. It's nothing like the example you give in your own essay of the idea that past a certain (arbitrary) level of complexity, consciousness spontaneously arises. I have some thoughts on your own essay that I will comment on there - thanks so much!

Erik P Hoel

Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 10:22 GMT
Nice essay Dr Hoel,

Your ideas and thinking are excellent, ‘Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.’ Polo answers: ‘Without stones there is no arch

Agents are generally somewhere above biological mechanisms but below economics on the ladder. They are a major part of the slim section...

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Heinrich Päs wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 11:31 GMT
Dear Erik,

congratulations to your beautiful essay. It is both brilliantly composed and very interesting. I'm also always keen to learn about new aspects of IIT.

I have two comments:

-First, a minor criticism: Of course "quark clouds" do not constitute atomic physics. Quarks constitute the atomic nucleus while chemistry depends on processes involving electrons in the atomic shells.

-Second, is "causal emergence" really so surprising? To me "causal emergence" seems to appear whenever an experimentalist is performing a series of measurements and statistical uncertainties average out (essentially the "law of large numbers" in stochastics). Probably even more prominently in quantum mechanics the fundamental level appears to be less deetermined than macroscopic classical physics. Can you elaborate a little more about whether the causal emergence you are talking about is different? Do I misunderstand the concept?

Also I'm a little confused about the exact relationship of under- and overfitting (overfitting seems clear to me but can somethink like underfitting be possible without causal breaks?)

When you talk about the emergence of teleology in agents I was also wondering how strongly this phenomenon is related to what you call substrate independence and to the relationship between matter and information. One may argue that pure information-based conecpts such as the "bill of rights" or the "contents of the bible" are totally substrate independent, and that agents exist somehow in between such imaterial objects and material physics. Would you agree with this interpretation? Finally, especially exciting to me are the role of the environment and of the perspective, also since that may provide a link to the foundations of quantum mechanics and to our own essay.

Best regards, Heinrich

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 14:58 GMT
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Causal emergence was first shown as a separate phenomenon in (Hoel et al. 2013), but you're right that we then later showed that it is at work in IIT: systems can have higher integrated information at larger scales (Hoel et al. 2016 in references).

As to your comments:

"..."quark clouds" do not constitute atomic physics. Quarks constitute...

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Heinrich Päs replied on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 16:50 GMT
Dear Erik,

thanks a lot for your detailed answer (and sorry for my late reply).

Actually I had seen your paper (Hoel et al. 2013) but as you discuss effective information which

I believe had been introduced in the context of IIT I was under the wrong impression the Hoel et

al. 2013 was dealing with IIT as well.

The paper was pointed out to me by a jesuit monk...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 17:49 GMT
hahah nice to hear a jesuit monk was interested!

I'd differentiate strong and weak emergence from causal emergence, only because there's a lot of philosophical baggage that comes with saying either of those terms. For example, a lot of philosophers have argued that strong emergence violates supervenience, whereas causal emergence doesn't. At the same time, a lot of philosophers have argued...

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Ted Christopher wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 14:17 GMT
Hi again Eric P. Hoel,

I am getting back having seen your Discovery article followup to Lorber et al's claims on small-brained performance. Two points,

1. That article really doesn't do much to deflate the implications of Lorber's findings.

2. That was simply a warmup example in my essay (which itself is a warmup example) as it nicely followed Sean Carrol's quote. I...

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 04:24 GMT
Hi Erik,

You're probably not going to like what I say. I am going to bring up two points concerning your article and none of them are addressed in your article.

The first point is simple. You plopped yourself in the middle of religion without even realizing it. It concerns the Romeo and Juliet argument you bring up. You seemed to miss that there was a wall at the end of the story that neither Romeo or Juliet could circumvent that was Death. Since you discuss the internal architecture of Romeo’s brain we will go with that. Romeo has received new information from the environment. Juliet is dead. S_d to S_k no longer exist. Or do they? A new S_k could be, Romeo will meet Juliet in the afterlife. That is religion. I'm not going to get into beliefs and the ends people use to extend them.

At the end of the 19th century, a certain scientist named Planck formulated his "Black body radiation" law. This law used the smallest thing currently known to man to describe the radiation of a black body. But it is not limited to black bodies, it includes the human body, our sun, our galaxy, and the CMB. How is any large scale effecting the smallest scale. To believe your model you would think the Planck's constant doesn't exist above atoms.

I See all the superlatives other people have given your article. I can't join them. I was drawn to your article by a tweet from Natalie Wolchover and calls your article "the %#*&". Good luck in the contest.

Jim Akerlund

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james r. akerlund wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 04:26 GMT
FQXi logged me out so I am not really "Anonymous".

Jim Akerlund

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David Pinyana wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 10:27 GMT
Interesting article that tries to understand the influence of the dimensional scales in human psychology and consciousness.

But taking into account that the composition of all living beings (known) is formed of very similar cells and molecules, we should deduce that the greatest differences occur in the higher levels and not in the lower levels as I understand you propose.

Please read my article ( that also deals with the SPACE SCALES applied to Cosmology.

Congratulations on your proposal!

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 12:54 GMT
Thanks so much for reading David. I appreciate it.

I just checked out your article - I think figure 2 is a really wonderful representation of the truly diverse range of scales.

Thanks again,

Erik P Hoel

David Pinyana replied on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 15:49 GMT
OK Erik, but further this figure, you should see a framework to explain a lot of Physics mysteries (Black matter and Energy, Uncertainly principle,...) and a way to follow up to improve in Cosmology: Universe scales are infinity (with diferent laws, concepts,..), and no TOEs will be possible.

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David Pinyana replied on Mar. 20, 2017 @ 22:00 GMT
You only arrive to the figure 2.... don´t you realize that this article, if true, could change the current Cosmology ?

And you don´t answer my question about your article: "we should deduce that the greatest differences occur in the higher levels and not in the lower levels as I understand you propose."

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Rajiv K Singh wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 12:51 GMT
Dear Erik,

You have already received so many comments that I am not sure, if this will add much to that. Yet ...

In many statements in the essay, there is one point reverberates as a non-violative presumption that the nature is deterministic in the absolute sense at the most fundamental scale (level). For example,"In this reductionist view, a biologist studying a cell is really...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 14:43 GMT
Thanks so much for reading Rajiv, I appreciate it.

I'll try to address some of these objections, which are rooted in misunderstandings or misconceptions.

"The function at the cellular level may not be entirely determined by the quarks, if there is a certain degree of indeterminism in the processes at any scale."

This is a misunderstanding between determinism and supervenience...

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Rajiv K Singh replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 06:40 GMT
Dear Erik,

Thanks for taking the discussion forward.

It appears, your claim of misunderstanding is indeed true. For example, you state, "A non-deterministic system will still have strictly fixed supervening levels. The state of the cell supervenes (is determined by) the constellation of elementary particles below it."

I suppose, for a non-deterministic system, a given...

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Rajiv K Singh replied on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 05:25 GMT
Dear Erik,

Now that we both agree on indeterminism, I mean on limited determinism, can we take on specific mechanism of emergence of quantitatively more information associated with macrostate than what exists in the complete description of microstate that reflects in the same macrostate? This was one of the original contention.

When I said, I will hold till you agreed / disagreed whether misunderstanding is resolved, I meant, no new points will be raised till then.


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Jack Hamilton James wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 00:55 GMT
Dear Eric,

You may like this essay in light of yours here, which was excellent.



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 14:08 GMT
Thank you Jack, I will check it out.

Shaikh Raisuddin wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 15:48 GMT
Erik P Hoel,

What it means an information to an atom?

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Wilhelmus de Wilde wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 17:27 GMT
Hi Eric,

I think you were very busy because untill now I didn't see your comment (nor a rating) on my essay "The Purpose of Life" where my thoughts passed the Planck Wall in order to find a reason for our reality.

I hope that you are still eager to read it.

thank you

and best regards

Wilhelmus de Wilde

PS sorry that I am a little pushing but I would...

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Wilhelmus de Wilde replied on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 17:29 GMT
and again sorry Erik for the faulty Eric...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 18:42 GMT
Wilhelmus, I already read your essay two weeks ago.

All the best,

Erik P Hoel

Wilhelmus de Wilde replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 17:50 GMT
sorry Erik,

As you did not leave a comment I just didn't know that.



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Don Limuti wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 00:59 GMT
Hi Erik,

You do a most wonderful job....(this is from a confirmed "we really do not know person"). And your participation in the Q&A above fully compliments your essay.

What strikes me as most interesting is:

The agents are up in complexity (and therefore information) and therefore the agents not only causally emerge, but significant aspects of their causal structure cannot be captured by any microphysical model. If this is true then causal emergence, whether through irreducible physical properties or because of measurement and observational tools, may explain why science has the hierarchal large structure that it does. New rungs in the ladder of science causally emerge from those below them. Different scientific fields are literally encodings by which we improve our understanding of nature.

I cannot imagine that Darpa and other government agencies would not be throwing money at you.

I personally would like to see a computer simulation of this causally emerging agent...I want to play with it :)

Say hello at my blog. I think you will find some humor in it.

Don Limuti

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 18:26 GMT
Thanks so much Don, that's great to hear. I wish DARPA was throwing money at me! They did fund the first paper on causal emergence (during my PhD), although I don't think in the original funding request to them causal emergence was even mentioned. I don't know if they've funded anything else - later research into it was funded directly by the Templeton foundation. The Templeton Foundation has had a great series of grants up and running on information and causation, which this definitely relates to. And right now I'm actually at a lab that gets a lot of DARPA funding, although not for this sort of purely theoretical research.

You're spot on about how great a full simulation would be; in fact, I was recently talking to someone about this. It may be possible with a simple enough model. One of the things I've tried to avoid is all the hedging that can occur when people are vague about the assumptions in modeling - you can get the macroscales of systems to do basically anything you want if you don't directly specify the underlying microscale and do a rigorous compare and contrast. If you can do that *and* the macro still beats the micro, then you've got something real. That kind of rigor is difficult because of complexity blowups in simulations but it may be possible.

I will definitely check out your blog - all the best!

Erik P Hoel

Anonymous wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 22:58 GMT

"I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics. This is particularly true of agents because they are autopoietic and possess (apparent) teleological causal relationships."

Is your underlying concept of "causal emergence from their underlying Microscopic physics" relate to the quantum decoherence caused by environmental noise and the trillions of particles the agent is composed of? Doesn't teleology usually see purpose in ends? And how is the agent's causal micro emergence relate to this causal relationship: "because they are autopoietic and possess (apparent) teleological causal relationships."

A lot of complexity and detail in your compact essay, Erik.

Quite interesting.

Hope you get time to comment on mine.


Jim Hoover

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 21, 2017 @ 20:04 GMT
Thanks so much for reading Jim. It's a great question about how this relates to various physical phenomena: as I've said in some other comments, right now it's more a mathematical theory based on information theory and causal analysis. But you're totally right in that there are a few really good places to look for it in nature, maybe quantum decoherence due to environmental noise is such a one.

In regards to teleology requiring purpose: it's subtle but purpose is in a sense present in the analysis. Non-purposeful actions wouldn't really be deterministic or path-independent. But this doesn't mean the teleology, or its accompanying purpose, has any grand meaning at all.

It's a great question to ask how causal emergence relates to autopoietic and teleological causal relationships. I tried to generalize the causal emergence findings a bit here, to say there is an even more general phenomenon of causal fitting. This can be seen when, for instance, a microscale causal relationship immediately decays but a macroscale causal relationship is stable across time. So I think they are interrelated, all facets of the same underlying discrepancies between the microscale and the macroscale causal structure. Additionally, such a lack of "causal fit" due to the system being autopoietic and teleological primes it for causal emergence, so that's another relationship.

All the best,

Erik P Hoel

James Lee Hoover replied on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 05:43 GMT

"But you're totally right in that there are a few really good places to look for it in nature, maybe quantum decoherence due to environmental noise is such a one."

In "Life on the Edge," Al-Khalili explores environmental noise and quantum coherence for photosynthesis, saying "the noisy interior of a living cell might act to drive quantum dynamics and maintain quantum coherence in photosynthetic complexes .." It's quantum biology I hadn't seen before.

Hope you get a chance to comment on mine.


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James Lee Hoover replied on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 04:54 GMT

Since it nears the end, I have been returning to essays I have read to see if I've rated them and discovered I rated it on March 19th.

Hope you have enjoyed the interchange of ideas as much as I have.

Jim Hoover

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James Lee Hoover wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 23:24 GMT

It obviously dropped by logon above.

Jim Hoover

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Yehuda Atai wrote on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 09:39 GMT
Hi Erik,

Indeed it is very interesting essay and I enjoyed reading it. I agree with you that all phenomena are Ontological and are not theological in their evolvement-occurrence.

Yet, you state:"They (the agents,Y.A) maintain their identity over time while continuously changing out their basic constituents." What keeps them from holding their self-organization? How they perceive their unique singular identity?

You rely on Causality principle on your hierarchical mapping from lower lever systems to higher one, and for predictions in a causal perception it works to some degree, but we find in reality that its limited. This is why we (humans) at a place and state were we are - in suffering, pain and confused.

I see reality evolving differently and causality is a special case in the occurrence of phenomena. (see my essay). Yes, we are evolving in the present continuous and continuously changing while holding to our unique self.

Your essay is challenging but raise more questions, which is good.

I hope we get high exposures to our potential readers.

With thanks

yehuda atai

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Peter Jackson wrote on Mar. 23, 2017 @ 12:31 GMT

An absorbing analysis, well written and described. Also one of few consistent with my own but from an interestingly different perspective.

You do a good job on what you cover but don't go into mechanism itself, either for causal interactions or to construct how Romeo responds to finding a wall and overcomes it. I hope you may study and comment on the 'scenario test runs' and 'feedback loops' I invoke, and hierarchical levels within our cortices.

I agree entirely with your hierarchy, well represented and employed. But I suggest that contrary to many assumptions these are ubiquitous throughout nature. From Einsteins 1952 STR concept of "spaces in motion within spaces" down to fractal and perturbation theories and on to the rules of brackets in arithmetic and identically 'layered' (see my last essay) propositional dynamic logic (PDL). Even the macro 'extra spin state' of the Higgs process is analogous! You refer to 'rungs'. Do you perceive underlying 'hidden likenesses' with any of these?

I did struggle to follow yours at first read (and I promise mine returns the compliment!) but I think unravelling density and complexity is essential so that's a positive attribute. Mine also goes on the to identify an extra 'layer' of information hidden in quantum interactions disguised as noise. My 2013 IQbit essay precursed this years which decodes it to get Classic QM. (thought that'd need understanding of 'spooky' QM then overcoming major dissonance to perceive!). More details of the mechanism are in my string with Stefan of 4/3.

I'd greatly value your comments on mine, which is testament to the quality, value and (my opinion!) veracity of yours. Thank you for the informative and enlightening new view of compatible conceptions.

Best of luck in the contest.


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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 20:54 GMT
Thanks so much for commenting Peter. I appreciate the kind words.

To be honest I'm not sure why it would matter exactly how Romeo overcomes in the wall - in fact, the very point of having a multiply-realizable causal path is that the mechanistic details don't matter. However, I take your point that there must be some underlying biological mechanism that accomplishes it, although, given how I'm saying that the causal relationship is "out of our heads" in this manner, perhaps the term "biological mechanism" doesn't actually cover it.

I certainly agree with you though that "[hierarchies] are ubiquitous throughout nature." In fact, there's a sense in which nature is itself a big hierarchy! I'd be interesting in more examination of this: most scientists don't spend a lot of time making sure scales actually fit together.

Anonymous wrote on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 07:34 GMT
Dear Erik

regarding our discussion on supervience, I have come up with the following aphorism:

"Bottom-up action enables top-down realisation to take place".

which actually captures part of what is going on. The other part ifs

"Top-down realisation puts in place the relations between elements that participate in Bottom-up action".



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Member George F. R. Ellis wrote on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 07:35 GMT
Aargh that was me

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 25, 2017 @ 01:39 GMT
Np George - did that myself earlier.

Interesting aphorisms! I think the field is so early that conventional language has a problem mapping to its contours. For instance, what's the difference between something being a "top-down realization" and just a "realization"? If a bunch of NOR gates realize some logic function, is that automatically a top-down realization? These are really interesting questions.

If I remember correctly, you've also used the word "constraint" to describe some of these issues before. I really like that. Constraint is nice because it can exist at a single timepoint and thus we can get really precise about space and time, supervening levels, etc. I also used "constraint" as a mathematical descriptor in a paper about causal emergence, and we showed that at time t, the supervening macroscale constrains the future (t+1) to a greater degree than the underlying microscale constrains that same future. One might then say, in english, something like: "The macroscale constrains the future of the microscale." What do you think of that phrasing? Do you feel it matches up to what you're talking about?

Thanks so much George!

Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 17:05 GMT
Hi Erik –

In the context of this contest, your essay is outstanding for the careful clarity with which you address a specific version of the problem we’re supposed to be thinking about. I now have a much clearer notion of “supervenience” and its limitations, thanks to you, and the concept of “causal emergence” fits nicely into the wider perspective you indicate in Appendix E. ...

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Mar. 25, 2017 @ 01:15 GMT
Thanks so much Conrad these are really great questions.

To your question of: "But am I wrong in thinking that supervenience only seems plausible because we’re used to the simple logic and precise determinism of classical physics?"

So suprevenience turns out to be a surprisingly flexible way of talking about systems and scales. It doesn't actually imply that the microscale must be...

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Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 13:02 GMT
Hi Eric…

I’ve considered this a little more, and also discovered why I was confused about the meaning of “supervenience”… apparently it was used early on to describe loosely what you call “brute emergence” and only later settled into the technical definition you use.

I don’t think my hesitation affects your argument about causal emergence, based on discrete finite systems, which is clearly a relevant description from the level of deterministic physics on up. In fact, your essay really should be included in the published collection of work from this contest, since it takes a significantly different approach to emergence from the other best essays here, and one I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Still, it’s not at all obvious that in the quantum realm “there is some microscale that is the case.” The closest we get to describing the state of the microscale is the wave-function. As I understand it, not only is that a matter of probability, but they’re probabilities of possible measurement results, rather than of possible microstates. If you don’t specify what kind of measurement will be made on it, you don’t even have a specific wave-function for a system. So there’s reason to be suspicious of philosophical arguments that “all higher scales must supervene on lower ones.”

This is just to say that emergence happens differently at different levels, so no one approach gives the whole picture.

Thanks again – Conrad

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 13:14 GMT
Thanks for commenting again Conrad - and I'm very glad to hear it had an impact.

As to your point, I actually generally agree with you on this. It may *not* be the case that all of science can be described in terms of a non-broken hierarchy of supervenience. Perhaps very strange stuff is going on at the microscale and causal structure of any kind can only exist at some level above the ultimate microscale anyways. However, causal emergence is relative to levels; so for instance, if biology does supervene on chemistry, biology could causally emerge from chemistry (regardless of whatever is going on beneath chemistry). It's also very probably that causal emergence can apply to non-strictly supervening scales - because again it's just comparing the macro to the micro causal structures. So these are really great questions - I'm not going to a priori ruling anything out. This is just the clearest way to present the idea without getting into all sorts of caveats about whether and where supervenience holds and how strict it is; which is, in a sense, a different (although just as interesting) problem. Certainly in the systems I'm working with supervenience always holds, which I view as the most difficult scenario in which to make a strong case for emergence, so that's why I always enforce that.


David Pinyana wrote on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 11:20 GMT
Erick, I see you will be the winer of this first essay contest... congratulatios, I already read your essay and rated it.

Please, consider to have into account my essay which main proposal is:

"A book that could revolutionize the future of Cosmological Physics: Aristotle, Newton, Einstein,…"

The Dynamic Laws of Physics (and Universal Gravitation) have varied over time, and...

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Daniel de França Diniz Rocha wrote on Mar. 31, 2017 @ 18:23 GMT
Dear Erik,

I noticed that you didn't see my answer, I think, so I reproduce it here: Y

Yes, sure, there are causal relations! That's why I put arrows, to indicate the diraction of chemical reactions. Also, because also tried to highlight structures that are stable with time. I wanted to speak about the mRNA, but I also wanted to talk about evolution... So, I ended up talking about the signals that pattern most of the animals.

If you have anything more to say, please, do it! I am also here to learn and enrich my ideas with the ones of other people!

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 14:16 GMT
Thanks for following up and letting me know Daniel,


Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton wrote on Apr. 1, 2017 @ 08:12 GMT
hi erik,

a very interesting technical essay that, unusually in this contest, actually endeavours to answer the questions that have been asked. you make mention of hierarchy and that there is, by consideration of all levels, something to be learned (a pattern emerges) which is fantastic. i also note you mention the critical importance of the role of corrective feedback.

i'm curious to know if you would consider whether, at a lower level in any given higher-level of a hierarchy which clearly can be demonstrated to exhibit goal-orientated behaviour not relevant to the lower level(s), the lower levels can *still* exhibit their *own* (defined type of) goal-orientated behaviour... *again* not relevant to the *higher* levels.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 14:25 GMT
Thanks so much Luke, glad to hear it.

Your question is an extremely good one. It goes back to what I discuss briefly in the essay in terms of supersedence versus layering. Higher level goals can only really exist if the causal relationships they are part of (or composed of) really also exist, that is, aren't completely reducible to what's being done by the lower levels. But the same is true in reverse. Are the lower-level goals subsumed into higher-levels, or can they exist in harmony in some sort of layering? I think it depends a lot on overlap - what you want to do is avoid overdeterminism. So I don't actually have a proven answer to your question: it depends on how this research works out in the end!

Member Marc Séguin wrote on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 05:38 GMT
Dear Erik,

Amazing essay, thought-provoking and absolutely on topic! I already knew about the work of Tononi and his collaborators on IIT, but it is when I read your description of causal emergence that I truly realized the potential of this general line of work to further our understanding of the fundamental nature of the world we live in! I used to believe that quantum mechanics and general relativity were the main areas of physics that were "foundationally relevant", but I now realize that thermodynamics, and its intricate and subtle relationship with information, is also hugely relevant. I found particularly enlightening your discussion of agents being stable at higher spatiotemporal scales and maintaining their identity over time while continuously changing out their basic constituents.

By contrast with yours, my essay is very metaphysical and philosophical: I play with the hypothesis that we can ultimately account for the lawfulness that we observe in our universe by the "co-emergence" of conscious agents and the laws of physics from the "infinite set of all abstract computations". This process would require "emergence to work both ways": consciousness would emerge out of a physical level of description that obeys the "mindless" laws of physics, but these laws would be at the same time an emerging consequence of the existence of a community of conscious observers that share between themselves a coherent story about a lawful and stable world. Maybe such a "strange causal loop" cannot be made to make sense, but if it ultimately does, I think that your concept of causal emergence will have some essential role to play.

Congratulations for having written such an interesting and deservedly well-received essay. Good luck in the contest: I am rooting for you to come up with one of the top prizes!


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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 15:03 GMT
Thanks so much for your kind words Marc. So glad you found it interesting.

I originally went to the Tononi lab to work on IIT, but my main focus was kind of this side problem concerning scale, which then bloomed into the whole notion of causal emergence. While causal emergence isn't necessarily related to consciousness, there's definitely causal emergence in IIT: in a recently paper we...

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 06:16 GMT
Dear Erik P Hoel

I appreciate your essay. You spent a lot of effort to write it. If you believed in the principle of identity of space and matter of Descartes, then your essay would be even better. There is not movable a geometric space, and is movable physical space. These are different concepts.

I inform all the participants that use the online translator, therefore, my essay is...

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Jeffrey Michael Schmitz wrote on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 17:27 GMT
Dear Erik,

You are close, but you are missing a few key connections. Between the quantum level micro-state and the next level is the large cliff of entropy and thermodynamics. Information theory needs the context of intelligence (intelligence is simpler and far more common than you might think). Please read my essay.


Jeff Schmitz

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Natesh Ganesh wrote on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 20:26 GMT
Hi Erik,

I am back again. I had an earlier post here but figured it would be much easier to converse if I started a new one. I have been studying the essay and some of your earlier work regarding macro over micro when it comes to causal emergence. I am not sold on IIT overall, but some of the measures you have is very useful to quantify such phenomenon.

I have an idea and wanted to get your thoughts on it. I will start by clarifying some of the terms so that there is no confusion. In my submission, when I talk about higher-lower level in the cerebral cortex hierarchy, I am referring to the layers 1-6 of the cortex at the same macrostate level. Layer 1 is where inputs come in and layer 6 is the 'higher' most deepest level. I had argued that this is the level where deeper goals/intentions should arise in the brain. Now in your submission you talk about causal emergence as one goes from a microscale to a macroscale. Would you agree that this could happen within a 'scale' if there is some kind of coarse graining within a particular scale across many layers? You might see where I am going with this. In a heirarchical predictive coding model from layers 1-6, I think we can show that as you go up the layers, a signal processing phenomenon called slow-feature analysis is performed across the layers. This is a form of coarse graining in the input mappings, from level 1 (lower) acting like a 'microscale' to level 6 (higher) behaving as the 'macroscale'. Thus there should be causal emergence as you go from lower to higher layers and with that intentional agency. I would be interested in your thoughts on this.



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 00:59 GMT
Hi again Natesh, thanks for stopping by again.

In general, IIT is about consciousness - specifically, how to measure its level and content. Causal emergence doesn't make any claims about consciousness, so the two in theory are separable. However, both have a root: the connection between information and causation. In IIT, we've done work showing that causal emergence is precisely why integrated information can be greater at higher scales.

About the layers of the cortex: usually, inputs to the cortex go actually to the middle layers (like layer 4, where in V1 most of the afferents from the LGN terminate). However, I agree that goals and so on probably occur "deeper" in the brain, although spatial direction might not vary with deepness in that sense. I also agree that the brain is a great place to look for causal emergence: it's highly redundant, processes information, and must have a very complex causal structure. Predictive coding is definitely a very interesting concept - it's certainly possible that things like feature detection implicitly rely on (or lead to) causal emergence, if the features you're detecting are macro-variables. So in general I think something like this should end up bing very relevant for neuroscience, but, as usual, the devil ends up being in the details and we just don't know enough about the brain yet.

Thanks so much for your comments and thoughts!

Erik P Hoel

Edward Kneller wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 00:05 GMT

Thank you for the clear and logical essay on how agents and goals emerge from the underlying microphysics. I thought the discussion and examples on autopoiesis were especially well explained.

Your essay references micro and macroscales throughout, so I thought you might be interested in my essay, The Cosmic Odyssey of Matter, which formally defines precise formations of matter (PFMs). The sequence of PFMs identified in my essay nearly matches Fig. 1 in your essay.

The objective of my essay is to simply define and identify the progression of these precise forms, it does not address the hard problem of emergence of agents and goals per your own essay. Just the same, formally describing the progression of precise forms may provide some context of how living organisms and human social groups relate to the broader universe.

link to The Cosmic Odyssey of Matter

Regards, Ed Kneller

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 00:26 GMT
Thank you for commenting Ed. I'm always interested in scale - and you certainly take a more cosmic perspective on scale in your own essay. Thanks for sharing,

Erik P Hoel

Gary D. Simpson wrote on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 23:56 GMT

Wow. I'm not sure I have anything to say or any questions left to ask. This is a very well-written. thorough, and complete essay. Well Done.

The only possible comment of interest I might have concerns Romeo and his motivations ... I don't think his brain was involved:-)

Best Regards and Good Luck,

Gary Simpson

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 18:17 GMT
Thanks so much Gary! Also, your comment made me laugh - yes, there are many... types of teleological causation.


Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 05:05 GMT
Dear Sirs!

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return.


Dizhechko Boris

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Torsten Asselmeyer-Maluga wrote on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 18:13 GMT
Dear Erik,

thanks for the well-written essay. I agree with Gary, there is not much left to ask. Your argumentation reminds on evolution.

Here, there are two processes, mutation and selection. Mutation produces new information (=species) and selection is a global interaction among the species giving a goal to the process. In a more refined model of Co-evolution, the selection itself is formed by the interaction between the species, so again you will get a direction or goal. So, I think from this point of view, your model perfectly fitz.

Maybe I have one question: you are an expert in neural science and I wrote about a brain (using methods from math and physics). Please could you have a look on my essay?

Thanks in advance and good luck in the contest (I gave you the highest rating)

All the best


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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 18:29 GMT
Thank you Torsten! I'll read your essay now.


Vladimir Nikolaevich Fedorov wrote on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 02:17 GMT
Dear Erik,

With great interest I read your essay, which of course is worthy of high rating. Excellently written.

I share your aspiration to seek the truth

«I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics.»

«being open to the environment is not sufficient...

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Janko Kokosar wrote on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 08:56 GMT
Dear Erik Hoel

You gave me new knowledge about top-down causation.

Here I am interested, if top-down causaton can be proved by some software simulation, like artificial life? Such simulation is simpler than simulation of animal evolution.

My opinion is that such theory does not yet directly explain free-will. I think so because all examples which you gave are also logical gates. But it is similarly with these logical gates as with some software. A software works according to logical gates, it has not free-will. For instance I think that red lines on your figure 3 are also logical gates.

I speculate that the laws of Newtonian physics, (without quantum physics) does not give top-down speculations. Probably this is not true, what do you think?

my essay

Best regards, Janko Kokošar

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 12:30 GMT
Thanks for reading Janko.

In regards to directly explaining free will - you're right, this doesn't, by itself, give a full argument for free will. This is because free will can be broken into several related problems. However, one of those problems is shown to be moot by this line of reasoning. That is the problem of having an underlying explanation for your own behavior at a much lower scale. So for instance, if someone says "you only did x because your are a collection of [fundamental particles], and it was those [fundamental particles] that actually did x." You hear a more causal form of this argument when someone says "my brain made me do it." However, if someone claims consciousness is itself epiphenomenal, or makes an argument from fatalism, causal emergence does not directly address that (although given a theory of consciousness it may be able to prove that consciousness is causally efficacious). But, regardless, the first step in getting to a [scientifically adult version of free will that probably won't be everything we want but ends up being good enough] is showing macro-level causation. So I think of this as a first step.

As for quantum physics - well, I actually think causal emergence is pretty common, even in things like cellular automata, which have very different "physics" from our own world.


Bruce M Amberden wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 04:42 GMT
Hello Erik Hoel,

I enjoyed your paper and I think that the ideas in your paper are a step in the right direction. But I do not think that your argument is sound. You assume in your first paragraph that agents have ‘goals, intentions, and purpose’, which, I believe, is the end point of the question as asked. I do not see how you link mindless mathematical laws to aims and intension.

I do not think that supervenience is the right concept. There are at least two hierarchies: the physical hierarchy and the conceptual hierarchy. The physical hierarchy starts at the Plank distance and extends at least 70 orders of magnitude to the size of the observable universe. The physical hierarchy is the realm of physical process behavior as summarized by mindless physical-mathematical laws . The conceptual hierarchy of the sciences is a human semantic overlay on the physical hierarchy. In either case, the guiding mathematical laws or science of the higher levels to not necessarily reduce to those at the lower levels – the rules of organic chemistry does not really reduce to sub-atomic physics; and the rules of baseball do not reduce to biology. What can be said is: the lower levels implement the higher levels, and things that appear at the higher levels are not predictable by the laws of the lower levels.

I think that implementation completes the emergence story. Emergence brings into being the parts that implement the next level up, but I think that implementation does a more natural job of ‘carving nature at its joints’. Implementations are assemblies of parts selected from collections of what emerges from below.

Thanks for the good read.


Bruce Amberden.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 13:09 GMT
Hmmm, let me try to clear some of this up.

"I do not think that your argument is sound. You assume in your first paragraph that agents have ‘goals, intentions, and purpose' which, I believe, is the end point of the question as asked."

As I outline in the essay, the question is not whether agents can be described as having goals, intentions, and purpose. You do that every day, I do...

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 07:28 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use «spam».

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which...

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George Kirakosyan wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 13:17 GMT
Hi dear Erik

I have read your amazing work today only (and a little bit in hurry - sorry)

I can evaluate it as high because it are well written and attractive-interesting, especially your underlining on the causal principle of arising of intentionality, coming from components-agents, which seems to me important. I have understand also that you had look somewhat pessimistically on the possibility to solve offered problem in whole, - for today. It seems to me important because I'm are inclined to approach to this discussion theme some critically. Hope you can look my essay in this short time and say some words (please in my page) that will be valuable for my.

I wish you success in this contest!

George Kirakosyan

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 13:24 GMT
Thanks so much for commenting even though you were in a hurry George! I appreciate it all the more.

And you're absolutely right - I'm trying in this essay to solve what I view as the underlying, fundamental, or ultimate problem which all approaches to the question will have: regardless of exactly how the goals/intentions/aims arise, there will be an ultimate problem for these descriptions, and that is whether they can possibly be causally efficacious.

All the best - good luck in the contest,


Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 21:15 GMT
Dear Erik P Hoel,

I was impressed with your comments early in the contest. You commented upon my essay before you posted your own essay, and, having exchanged thoughts with you, I forgot that I had not read your essay.

Having read it now, I enjoyed it very much, beginning with your toy system where you demonstrate that macroscale transitions are more deterministic and less degenerate, so interventions at the macroscale are essentially more effective. This may explain some of the power of the 'qubit' in statistical spin systems. The 0.81 -> 1.0 bit of information was extremely interesting.

And I agree with your conclusion: "attempting to describe an agent down at the level of atoms will always be a failure of causal model fitting."

Thanks for your excellent analysis and good luck!

Best wishes,

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 21:32 GMT
Glad to hear it Edwin - I definitely remember your own essay as being one of the ones that really interested me early on.

Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you found the analysis of macro vs micro interesting/useful - the connection you see to qubits is intriguing.

All the best!


Lorraine Ford wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 03:34 GMT
So sorry that science has stooped so low. While multi-cellular life has clearly “emerged” from particles, atoms, molecules and cells, emergence models are largely an edifice of spin. The emperor has no clothes.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 04:08 GMT
Sorry you didn't like the essay Lorraine! I think it's true that theoretical work on emergence does sometimes have some spin; however, there's also a lot of serious content from people really trying to do something rigorous and interesting. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Georgina Woodward wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 04:28 GMT
Hi Erik, very well written essay. You do not mention feedback from higher to lower level at all, and so just have the ascending ladder of micro to macro giving causality. However, for example, social relations and/or a complex environment can cause stress to an organism that then affects the concentrations of biochemicals such as hormones and neurotransmitters in the individual that can subsequently affect it's (the organism's) behaviour. So tracing the behaviour only to the biochemical concentrations misses out on the why the levels are what they are; and misses an important feedback in the causal chain. Kind regards Georgina

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 14:59 GMT
Thanks for reading Georgina.

The reason I focus on an ascending ladder is because it's easy to slide between definitions when talking about this stuff, and working with discrete finite models with discrete finite sets of supervening scales forces rigor. For example, sometimes people talk about "top-down causation" when they are really talking about something that's probably more clearly described as "whole/part" causation. Your example of an organism that's stressed from the surrounding social relations is more like how part might influence a greater whole (the social structure). Talking about feedback makes a lot of sense in that regard. However, wholes don't share an identity with individual parts. A higher scale, however, does seem to have something like an identity relationship with its lower scales (there may be some caveats to this, but in general for discrete finite systems this seems solid). So what would it mean for there to be feedback between a thing itself across scales? My point is not that it can't possibly happen, but rather that it's a) different than the more obvious whole/part feedback and b) there are simpler (i.e., more rigorous) ways of investigating the phenomenon first. I think you are completely correct that this isn't the final story, and you're right to ask the question: about the intermediary scales? What you refer to as the "causal chain" is something I mention in terms of future directions in some of the supplementary material (E).

Peter Warwick Morgan wrote on Jun. 2, 2017 @ 13:18 GMT
If you're listening, there may be more comments here because of the Quanta post
han-the-sum-of-its-parts-20170601/. At this point the contest looks to be going well for you, so an early congratulations for that at least, as well as for the mention at Quanta.

I have a query about your 4x4 matrix on page 4, and its reduction to 2x2. Surely the choice to make the reduction by projection to 3+1 dimensional subspaces instead of to 1+3 or to 2+2 introduces significant information? Indeed, a projection to arbitrary subspaces could be introduced, resulting in almost any 2x2 matrix. Your text offers that "a macroscale is constructed of a grouping (coarse-­‐grain) of the first three microstates (it is multiply realizable)", which uses information contained in the matrix to choose the particular 3+1 projection. The choice of "multiple realization" would seem to identify a particular algorithm for identifying subspaces, with the implication of some degree of algorithmic complexity. I'm sadly no expert on information theory, however.

If you answer this, I may formulate further questions or comments.

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Jun. 2, 2017 @ 17:35 GMT
Hey Peter - yup, still receiving the emails if someone posts here. Thanks for the congrats about Quanta, I was pretty happy at the level of complexity in which the author wrote about the research and hopefully it attracts more researchers into the area.

To answer your query about the 4x4 matrix: if I understand you correctly, your intuition is correct that there are many possible projections, many of which may lead to different values. You're right. The conceptually simplest way to deal with it is to brute force it. Just try all possible projections, and one will have the most information. However, I'm not sure what you mean by saying that the choice of multiple realization would identify a particular algorithm for identifying subspaces. There's a certain mapping associated with it, but I wouldn't call it an algorithm. You are definitely correct that all this has some connection to the algorithmic complexity - in general, program length should decrease for any macroscales.

Peter Warwick Morgan replied on Jun. 3, 2017 @ 12:06 GMT
I think it is, but I won't go to the wall over whether the choice of mapping as a nonlinear function of the matrix elements is an algorithm; in any case this is mostly an illustrative toy model for you.

I left a comment at Quanta. The first paragraph is specific to the Quanta article, and I'll paraphrase the second paragraph as saying that I think you are too dependent on conventional...

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Peter Warwick Morgan replied on Jun. 6, 2017 @ 18:45 GMT
Over on Shtetl-Optimized, you mention "I’m not answering all things people toss out as I don’t want to spam the thread." I expect you're not even referring to me, but FWIW I'll repeat my comment there (which reels in a little my comment above that I wouldn't go to the wall over the choice of mapping),

«Hoel works with Markov processes, but specializes to systems that have an exact...

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Author Erik P Hoel wrote on Jun. 7, 2017 @ 03:48 GMT
Hey Peter - I definitely wasn't referring to anyone in particular. I didn't want to spam Scott's thread with replies to questions, so I was honest that I wouldn't be answering everyone. I'm happy to answer anything posted here, however.

To your question about whether physical systems are separable enough for coarse-graining (if I understood you correctly): there's no requirement that...

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Peter Warwick Morgan replied on Jun. 7, 2017 @ 11:56 GMT
Thanks, that seems a good answer. It's rather open-ended, but that's OK.

It felt to me that Scott was talking rather at cross-purposes to you, and particularly that he and other commenters on the thread were mostly too far away from the Markovian process mathematics for the discussion to be very productive, so Kudos for removing yourself from it so cleanly.

As I've mentioned above, my focus is on algebra of observables approaches to Physics, including algebraic QFT but also classical random fields, where the relationship to space-time is firmly specified; Markovian processes are certainly useful as models, but they are rather removed from the QFTs that physicists take seriously as fundamental physical models almost to the exclusion of all other models. Not that I take physicists necessarily to be right about that, but I suppose that if one wants to talk seriously to physicists and to talk about mind supervening on physics some moderately precise link to space-time does have to be made (albeit at the Planck scale totally precise is unlikely). The link between Markov models and consciousness seems also too tenuous to me, but I don't have a mathematical or other framework in which to discuss how it is tenuous.

Perhaps finally, thanks for mentioning the "Markov blanket" idea, which I had not come across before.

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Peter Warwick Morgan replied on Jun. 9, 2017 @ 16:35 GMT
I'm going to put my worries about the construction in terms I'm familiar with, quantum mechanics, but which I hope will not be too unfamiliar for you, Erik, instead of in the terms you have been using, which I take to be of stochastic matrices and stochastic vectors representing states.

In the QM context of Hilbert spaces and the representation of states by density matrices, von Neumann...

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Sanjay Gulati wrote on Jun. 12, 2017 @ 03:11 GMT
I believe it was David Hume who pointed out that murder doesn't exist at the micro level--where at a physics level does an ethical wrong get encoded?

I'm wondering about macro items other than agents--the meaning of a printed word doesn't exist at the micro level, nor does a photograph exist in its pixels. Temperature--or any average or similar calculation--exists at a different "level" than that of the atoms whose root mean square velocity it measures.

I'm not clear on how the exclusion principle can exclude things that can't exist at micro levels, such as an image, a murder, or a feeling.

Maybe I'm completing missing something?

Your article is so beautifully and clearly written.



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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Jun. 12, 2017 @ 14:02 GMT
Did not know that Hume quote! Thank you Sanjay.

Like most contemporary arguments in philosophy, the exclusion principle is a re-statement of things people have talked about for a while. It was given its contemporary incarnation in a debate about mental causation. However, others have pointed out that the argument easily generalizes to all macro-properties (because the central argument is that anything that supervenes on anything else can't really be a cause). What the argument would say in the cases that you give (an image, a murder, a feeling) is that those things are merely epiphenomenal higher-level descriptions, which may be useful but don't actually cause anything. So an image is just a set of pixels, a murder is just a particular set of atomic trajectories, and a feeling just some neurons firing (or you could go lower). All the "causal work" that brings them about is being done at the lower scale.

You bring up a very good point about temperature - there do seem to be macro-states that ignore (or mostly ignore) the underlying micro-states. What the theory of causal emergence captures is how this also mean that the causal structure can be different at the higher scale, precisely because of this.

Sanjay Gulati replied on Jun. 13, 2017 @ 01:38 GMT
Thank you so much for this explanation. I get it. Utter reductionism.

OK, so as cars pull up to a stop sign, and one by one, stop, the exclusion principle is telling us that the configuration of the word STOP, and its processing by each driver's brain is in no way causative of the drivers' stopping, that the word STOP is an epiphenomenon of the underlying physics between the lightwaves...

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Paul Merriam wrote on Jun. 12, 2017 @ 19:45 GMT
Thanks for your essay,

1. Fisher proposed how nuclear (quantum) entanglement might be stable over mesoscopic distances in the brain [1].

2. i don't understand causality in quantum mechanics too well, but this is cool. they've demonstrated a computational speedup for a parity task with a single qutrit [2]. it takes one evaluation in the quantum case but two evaluations in the classical computation. it seems like there's a notion of 'quantum causality' going on that's not an averaging over (or function of) the microcausal chains, since they take too long.




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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Jun. 12, 2017 @ 20:06 GMT
Thanks for links Paul, they were interesting. It's possible that quantum effects in the brain turn out to have something to do with consciousness, although my personal rating of that probability is extremely low as of now, for a few reasons.

Appreciate the kind words,


Paul Merriam wrote on Jun. 19, 2017 @ 17:34 GMT
Would it change anything if instead of giving the state of group A as {1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,0} or as the coarse-grained {6}, you give it as a function of both, {1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,0,6}?

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Author Erik P Hoel replied on Jun. 19, 2017 @ 20:30 GMT
Thanks Paul - it depends on precisely what's being done, but if you give the future state as a function of the microscale {0.... 1} then it will have low effective information. If you give it as a macroscale {6} then it will have higher effective information. Since both sets cover the same space of possibilities but one (the macroscale) has more information, there won't be any extra information by including the microscale. However, I think in general your intuition is correct that we can think about causation at multiple scales in some cases, although I also think this won't be true in all cases.

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