The unbearable lightness of building

A few weeks ago I realized what the meaning of Life is.

But first of all, we have to understand the concept of emergence, and in particular, that of emergent evolution. This brief introduction will also lay the foundation to my reasons for writing this blog. Disclaimer: I have a degree in astronomy, so I am in no way qualified to argue about evolutionary theory with the depth it deserves. I am writing this post in the hopes of spreading the idea of something I have found interesting, and to further my own understanding of it.


In its simplest form, the concept of an emergent property is really quite simple: it is an entity which is qualitatively more than the sum of its parts. The most basic examples are ant colonies, nations, or in the physical sciences, temperature. A nation is not its land, its buildings or people: it is all that and something more. (If this reminds you of Harari's concept of collective fictions, I'm right there with you. We will get back to this later.)

But there is a different, much deeper school of thought built around the idea of emergence, building on the ideas of Samuel Alexander's emergent evolution, Michael Polanyi's personal knowledge, and Lee Smolin's argument that time is the fundamental feature of reality. I have encountered these concepts through the work of Daniel Paksi, and the following introduction is my attempt at presenting my understanding of it as succintly as I can.

The first idea we have to grapple with is that according to this view, the fundamental fabric of reality is not matter, but time. Unfortunately, time has been "banished" from the natural sciences in the past century: reduced to merely another, fourth dimension of spacetime. This began as a mathematical abstraction, which worked for the practical descriptions and predictions we needed - but eventually also became internalized as a metaphysical statement. Materialist monism (the idea that there is only matter) has not only stripped humanity of the concept of a soul (defeating the prominent philosophy of dualism), but misunderstood the importance and separation of time. The two is not unrelated. Bringing back time as an important and obviously separate feature of reality has some conceptual advantages, and some new challenges too.

It is painfully obvious on a personal level that time behaves and manifests itself differently compared to space, and matter. According to Alexander, experience tells us that time has three fundamental properties:

  1. inherited: that is, it forms a continous whole, and sucessive moments are building on the previous ones.
  2. irreversible: time has a distinct direction.
  3. transitive: time preserves properties previously acquired, eg. the past never becomes the future

Compared to this, space is 1. not inherited, that is, separate points of space are not building on eachother; 2. reversible, that is, points of space have no order; 3. not transitive, points of space do not inherit/pass on their properties to other points. This leads us to the realization that space is at best a mathematical abstraction, but let's not go down this rabbit hole right now. Let us focus on time.

Contrary to an infinite, timeless Universe, shifting our mental model to having time as the ultimate organizing principle allows us to reconcile with the fact that we live in a constantly changing, ever evolving Universe. We all know this personally and empirically, so why strip our understanding of reality of this simple observation?

If we follow this thought, and accept that time is the real fundamental feature of reality, we can describe other phenomena of the Universe as different manifestations of time:

  • Spacetime is an emergent property of Time.
  • Matter as an emergent property of spacetime (which is basically what general relativity tells us too, practically, but with a different metaphysical foundation).
  • Life emerges from matter.
  • Consciousness emerges from Life
  • Culture emerges from Consciousness
  • ... ?

If, rightfully, you ask what is time emerging from, the answer is in accordance with modern cosmological theories: time emerges from a singularity, which is not built on anything. It does not need to have a beginning, nor is it timeless. Reality is emerging from time, so before time, there was nothing. Huh. Let's move on.

One thing we have to see here is that each level has to have the potential inside it for something greater to emerge from it. Matter, even before the birth of life, had to have the potential, the required properties for life to appear from it. This is not surprising, pretty obvious, right? A thing cannot come from something else that is incapable of producing it. But, following the concept of emergent properties described in the beginning, this also means that life cannot be reduced to matter alone, as the former is an emergent property of the latter, with qualitatively different properties. Matter had the potential inside it to create life, just as life had the potential to create consciousness, etc...


This also leads us to the question of evolution. Materialism, if you think about it, cannot really say anything about evolution. It is quite funny that implicitly everyone agrees that humans are more evolved than procariotes, but if you try to formulate the message of a materialistic evolution, it is that there is none: one might be more complex than the other, but fundamentally they are made of the same building blocks, and have both adapted to their environments to the best of their evolutionary abilities. There is no evolution, in the real meaning of the word, only random change, led by random mutations and the mechanisms of natural selection. But the theory of evolution and the theory of natural selection are not the same thing. So how do we talk about, and properly differentiate actual evolution using our new concepts of emergence?

The way I understand it, is that we can talk about evolution when an entity expands its potential for creating/acting in higher and higher levels of emergent systems. To put another way, one thing is more evolved than another when it has the potential to manifest higher orders of "being" (that is, to give rise to new manifestations of Time). This is the reason why a human is more evolved than a prokariote. Using this concept, it also becomes obvious to talk about devolution: for example, when an animal, forced to live in a dark cave loses its ability for sight after some generations -  it is a successful adaptation to its surroundings through the mechanism of Darwinian selection, but it has lost the ability to observe and act in the Universe at a higher level. It is definitely not evolution.


Let's get back to other manifestations of time. Culture, as an emergent property of consciousness is particularly interesting. The ability to pass on intergenerational knowledge and values, not just on a biological level, is a fantastic tool of some animals. What further separates humans from the rest of the primates, is of course a very high level of symbolic codes, not just mimesis: language, writing, printing, and now digital media and the internet. The birth of cultural time, the structuring and reflexivity on the past, present, and future is what enables groups of humans to cooperate on an unprecedented scale (I told you we would circle back to Harari).

The future of the group is dependent on how well the individuals fulfill their roles within its norms and values, through their performance (successful actions). According to Polanyi, this is the same that can be said at the biological level: to successfully replicate, a procariote must fulfill/adhere to the norms and values of what is considered a replication. He calls this the logic of performance. According to this idea, through an organizing principle, distinct, lower level entities become parts of a higher level structure, such that they gain the ability to change and control the lower levels, therefore ensuring their survival (continued existence in time). Pretty awesome.

There is something deeply optimistic about this. The choice between materialism and dualism is a false dichotomy. We don't need God to rid ourselves of the nihilism that materialism and scientific relativism brought about. Emergence theory, and in particular emergent evolution is a concept that could fill the philosophical vacuum that was left after dualism vaned. We, humans have the responsibility and burden to create, build, and grow, to ensure the survival of the species, and to give rise to even higher modes of being. There is nothing arrogant about this: as far as we know, we are at the pinnacle of this billions of years of emergent structuring of reality, because we have the ability to actually reflect on this. I also find David Deutsch's ideas fitting here: knowledge formation is a genuine act of creation, and we are at the beginning of an infinity of knowledge. If that is not inspiring, I don't know what is.


I started this blog to share and internalize some of my projects, and ideas I encounter. Sharing and absorbing knowledge is an evolutionary responsibility we have. If knowledge creation is a responsibility, and we accept the evolutionary performance aspects of it too, the real motto we should have is: win and help win.

Robert Tera

Robert Tera