What's the Big Idea?

In a particularly incisive column published earlier this year, New York Times columnist David Brooks surveyed some of the best ideas put forward in an Edge.org symposium that asked 164 contributors the question “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Among the many fruitful contributions Brooks highlighted, one point in particular captured his attention: "Public life would be vastly improved if people relied more on the concept of emergence," he wrote. 

Borrowing from an analogy put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, David Brooks told Big Think that we tend to think of problems as either a clock or a cloud. Unlike a clock, which you can take apart, a cloud is a dynamic system that can only be studied as a whole. 

A cloud, therefore, is an emergent system, a problem that cannot be defined by a straight causal relationship. Instead, it must be understood by studying the interplay between its parts. Here is how Brooks described an emergent system to Big Think:

What is the significance?

As Brooks outlined, there are numerous problems that can only be solved by emergent thinking. For instance, he writes, "We still try to address problems like poverty and Islamic extremism by trying to tease out individual causes. We might make more headway if we thought emergently." Another powerful example is marriage. How do you fix a troubled marriage? Brooks tells Big Think how emergent thinking is essential: