What is Emergent Thinking?

David Brooks: Carl Popper, the great philosopher said, “All problems are either clouds or clocks.”  A clock is a… to understand a clock, you can take it apart, it’s individual pieces and you study the pieces and then you can understand how a clock works.  A cloud, you can’t take apart a cloud.  A cloud is a dynamic system.  A cloud you can only study as a whole.

So an emergent system is something you only can study as a whole.  So for example, a cloud is an emergent system, but your brain is an emergent system.  When you think of an idea like apple, it’s not in any one neuron in the brain; it’s in the interplay of many different neurons.  A culture is an emergent system.  There’s no one person who exemplifies American culture, but the interaction of all of us Americans creates this thing called American culture.  And once
that thing exists, then it has an influence on the rest of us, it shapes our behavior.

So we’re surrounded by these patterns of interaction, these emergent systems.  And so a corporate culture is an emergent system, team spirit is an emergent system, poverty is an emergent system.  So what are the things that contribute to poverty? Well some
of it is just sheer lack of money, but some of it is certain habits, some of it is racism, there’s a whole bunch of fake things that factor in.  And so one of the problems that we have as a culture is we take clouds and we pretend they’re clocks.  We take problems that are emergent and we pretend we can solve them through deductive reasoning, but just picking them apart.  And we always want to find the one thing that will lead to that, so we always want to find “X” leads to “Z”. The problem with an emergent system, you don’t have those kinds of straight causal relationships.  Everything, it’s all about the interplay.  It’s all about the dance.

And so when you talk about a corporate culture or a marketplace or anything, it’s about the complex interplay of all these different things.  And if we thought about emergent systems, we just have a much more supple view of how the world actually works.  We wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart and studying it by studying the details.

If we took a much more supple view of how the world actually works, we wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart to study the details.

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less