2.2 Changing perspective to push emergence into the background

It is easy to push both features of emergence into the background by standing outside the system; viewing it from a distance. From the lottery organiser's perspective, for example, the symmetry-breaking event requires no explanation. Lotteries sell very large numbers of tickets. On this scale, laws of large numbers stabilise probability distributions and allow the company to budget for wins and make a dependable profit. From this aggregate perspective the dynamics of the lottery system are broadly linear and time-symmetric. Its future behaviour can be predicted subject to some statistical uncertainty.

The emergence concept is a perennial source of misunderstanding between natural and human scientists. Many natural systems operate on scales that make it hard to imagine ourselves standing inside them, monitoring events as they unfold, or reviewing the narrative chain in memory. Some of these systems display patterns of reorganisation called 'metastability' that share many of the features we associate with ecological systems. When the power-button on the side of a laser pointer is pressed, for example, the system experiences a rapid shift between attractors, producing a very coherent light source. Similarly, when a dormant cress seed is planted and watered, the germination process begins rather quickly as the seed flips from the dormant attractor to the growing plant. In both cases there is a step-change as the system moves from one type of dynamic to another, but the change is predictable. If the battery isn't flat and the seeds are viable, we know what will happen.

Note: What Kierkegaard actually said was: Det er ganske sandt, hvad Philosophien siger, at Livet maa forstaaes baglænds. Men derover glemmer man den anden Sætning, at det maa leves forlænds
which translates:
It is well true, what philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But one should not forget the second sentence, that it must be lived forwards. 1843 (, JJ:167)

It is sometimes helpful to distinguish surprising non-linearities from predictable ones. Systemic surprises are not merely metastable - capable of self-organising flips from one attractor to another - they are innovative in the sense that the course of history is changed by unfamiliar patterns of behaviour and events (Winder 2007). Søren Kierkegaard observed (see note) that we make sense of our lives backwards but must live them forwards. This is so because our knowledge-state changes as we shift from the ex ante to the ex post perspective. Innovative, symmetry-breaking dynamics come to feel more like metastable system-flips as our knowledge state develops and we view those events from a distance.

In a metastable system, all the attractors are potentially knowable, ex ante. Under the assumption of metastability, an Upper Pleistocene hunter could have predicted the existence of dairy farming and a 19th-century curate could deduce that his church might one day be converted into a shopping mall. In an innovative system, however, the attractors are by-products of agency, co-operation and, in human activity systems, of shared beliefs. They could not be anticipated, even in theory, because the ability to do so would imply the existence of knowledge we do not yet have.

The difference between innovation and metastability is not 'out there' in the material universe; it is a perceptual structure that can be switched by changing mental perspective. When Einstein wrote to Franklin Roosevelt about the possibility of building an atomic bomb, for example, he was drawing attention to the fact that some atomic systems seemed to be metastable and could be bounced out of their stable attractors and transformed into huge amounts of energy. However the Manhattan Project initiated to develop the atomic bomb could never have been conceived in a world where humans had no knowledge of nuclear physics. It may seem obvious that physical matter is metastable and can be transformed into energy, and that the technology needed to do this was a mid-20th-century innovation, but the distinction is surprisingly difficult to objectify. The difference has to do with whether one locates scientists within the systems they are studying, or not.