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2
Reduction and
Emergence


Introduction
The first step in understanding consciousness is to examine
how we understand other things in the world. Reduction and
emergence are the two main principles that we use to learn
about the reality around us. Reduction is a top-down approach,
breaking our complicated existence into more basic elements.
Emergence is much the opposite, seeking to comprehend how
complex entities arise from the interaction of fundamental
components.

The Method of Reduction
The human mind inherently tries to understand complex
things by breaking them into simpler components. This is a
basic strategy we have all used since childhood; it is a
fundamental part of the way we think. Analyzing problems in
this way is called reduction, since it reduces something that is
complex into something that is more elementary. It is the single
most important method used by both scientists and everyday
people to understand the world around them.
Let's look closer at how reduction works and the kind of
knowledge that it leads to. As an example, suppose that we
encounter a grandfather clock for the first time and want to
understand it in the greatest possible detail. Figure 2-1
illustrates the method we will use. We start by dismantling the
clock piece-by-piece, taking great care to record how the
individual components fit together. This disassembly leaves us
with a few hundred parts spread out on our work table, plus a


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notebook full of sketches and descriptions that indicate how the
parts can be assembled into the original object.
At this point we ask the question: "What is a grandfather
clock?" Our answer is simply: "A grandfather clock is the
several hundred parts resting on the table in front of us,
assembled in the way indicated by the notes we have taken." In
other words, we have reduced the original object to two things:
(1) a set of smaller objects, and (2) the assembly instructions.
Being good scientists, we want to continue this analysis to
its fullest conclusion. This means we need to consider each of
the individual parts one-by-one, trying to reduce each to even
more basic components. For instance, we might find that the
face of the clock is a steel plate with a white background and
black numbers. Accordingly, we stop thinking of the clock face
as a single thing. Rather, we begin to view it as a sheet of metal
and two kinds of paint, assembled in a specific way that we
write down in our notebook.
As we continue this process we eventually encounter
objects that are composed of a single material, for instance, the
glass window that the clock face is viewed through. We can no
longer reduce this type of object by simple mechanical
disassembly; the chemistry of the materials must be examined.
For this particular example, a chemist may tell us that the glass
is composed of atoms of silicon and oxygen, combined in a
certain molecular and physical way. To fully reduce the object
we must specify the type and exact location of each and every
atom that forms the object. In addition, we also need to specify
the state of each of these atoms, such as how they are bonded to
neighboring atoms to form molecules, as well as similar
properties that chemists and physicists know about.
While this level of reduction is possible in principle, it is far
beyond our present technology to actually carry it out. First,
atoms are extremely small, making them very difficult to
observe and measure. Second, the sheer number of atoms is
enormous, far too large even for the most powerful computers
Chapter 2: Reduction and Emergence 9




FIGURE 2-1
Objects to atoms. The method of reduction breaks objects into
elementary components through a systematic series of steps. In
this example, a grandfather clock is reduced to its component
parts; each of the parts is reduced to its component molecules;
and each of the molecules is reduced to its component atoms.
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of today. For instance, there are about a million million million
atoms in a single spec of dust. Will this level of reduction ever
be feasible? Maybe, but certainly not in the next few decades;
maybe not even in the next few centuries. However, the general
idea is not as far fetched as you might think. As shown in Fig.
2-2, the detection and manipulation of individual atoms is
something that can be done today.




FIGURE 2-2
Manipulation of individual atoms. In the early 1990s, scientists at
IBM demonstrated that the scanning tunneling microscope could be
used to move atoms into various formations, in addition to creating
images of them. This sequence shows individual iron atoms, resting on
a sheet of copper, being moved into a circle 5000 times smaller than
a human hair. [“Confinement of electrons to quantum corrals on a
metal surface,” M.F. Crommie et al., Science 262, pp218-220, 1993].
Chapter 2: Reduction and Emergence 11

The important concept is that the principle of reduction
allows us to understanding the world by breaking it into smaller
and smaller components. But where does this end? At what
point can reduction no longer be carried out? A simple answer
can be given to these questions. The method of reduction ends
when the things being considered can no longer be broken
apart; that is, when we have reached things that are irreducible.
Identifying these irreducible things is one of the primary
goals of science. If you open an introductory textbook on
physics you will find many irreducible things discussed. This
includes particles such as electrons, protons, and neutrons, the
components that form atoms. It also includes forces, such as
magnetism and gravity. Even stranger, we must include the
dimensions that we exist in, namely, distance and time.
Since these things cannot be analyzed by reduction, there is
an inherent barrier to knowing exactly what they are. We can
easily measure their characteristics and how they relate to each
other, but why they have these characteristics and behaviors is
much more mysterious. For instance, it is well known in
science that an electron moving through a magnetic field will
travel in a curved path. The amount of curvature can be
calculated from the details of the problem, such as the speed of
the electron and the strength of the magnetic field. However,
this tells us nothing of what an electron is, or what a magnetic
field is, or why the interaction takes place. In short, we can
accumulate knowledge about how these irreducible things
behave, but not about what they are.
Day-after-day we exist in something we call reality. It is
what we perceive with our five senses: vision, hearing, touch,
taste, and smell. It is what we measure with our instruments,
such as thermometers, rulers and clocks. Reality is as familiar
as anything can be. But what is it? The method of reduction is
an attempt to answer this question by separating reality into two
categories: (1) those things that are irreducible, which we will
call the Elements-of-reality, and (2) the assembly instructions,
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which are Information. Figure 2-3 illustrates this extremely
important concept.
These two categories have very different characteristics.
The Elements-of-reality are tangible; they can be measured with
our instruments; they seem to have a real existence independent
of our paying attention to them. And of course, they are
irreducible, by definition. On the other hand, the assembly
instructions are a type of Information. Information exists only
when stored in some kind of physical medium, such as writing
in a notebook, electronic signals in a computer, chemical
changes in a brain, or the energy fluctuations in a radio wave.
It can also be transferred from one storage medium to another
without changing its content in the slightest. However,
Information is lost forever when its storage is interrupted for
even the shortest instant of time. One way to capture these
elusive characteristics is to define Information as the thing that
can be passed over a communications channel. Let's look at an
example to see how this works.

The Transmitted Hourglass
Suppose in the future we make contact with an extra-
terrestrial civilization by radio signal. We find that the aliens
are rather like us, having bodies that operate on similar
chemistry and biology, and minds that think much the way we
do. This is fortunate, because it allows us to create a common
language for exchanging ideas. We go about this in much the
same way that a child learns to speak. At first we transmit
pictures of common objects, along with the nouns we use to
describe them. Next, we transmit pictures of actions, along
with the associated verbs. This leads to the generation of
sentences, a dictionary, and the ability to express abstract
concepts. Our communication with the aliens may not be
perfect, but language never is, even between humans. The
point is, there is no reason to think that our different
backgrounds would stop us from communicating altogether.
Chapter 2: Reduction and Emergence 13




FIGURE 2-3
The endpoint of reduction. The method of reduction systematically
breaks reality into two categories, the Elements-of-reality, which are
irreducible, and Information, consisting of the assembly instructions.


Since the aliens exist in the same universe as we do, they will
have the same Elements-of-reality, thereby providing common
ground to build upon.
After a few initial exchanges, the aliens send a message
indicating they want to build one of our historical artifacts, so
that they can better appreciate our technology and culture. The
device they select is an hourglass, and they ask us how they
should go about the fabrication. Our response is the most
complete description possible, starting with how the individual
electrons, protons, and neutrons are combined to form the
required atoms. Next, we describe the position of each and
every atom that is needed to form the hourglass, and how they
are interconnected with each other. The size of the transmitted
description is enormous, and we can't imagine that it is lacking
in any way. We also provide instructions for calibrating the
device, since we know that the alien planet will probably not
have the same gravitational field as the earth. This tells the
aliens how to change the distance across the neck of the
hourglass so that the sand will drain in the correct amount of
time.
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Some time later we receive a reply from the aliens thanking
us for our help. They inform us that they were able to build an
hourglass using electrons, protons, and neutrons from their
home world, assembled according to the instructions we
provided. They also tell us that the calibration procedure
worked just as we indicated it would. The aliens' success is no
surprise to us since they had access to everything they needed:
Elements-of-reality, which they had locally, plus the assembly
instructions we transmitted over the communications channel.
Is there anything that the aliens could not reconstruct by using
this procedure? According to the method of reduction, no.
Taken to an extreme, the aliens could even create a duplicate of
the entire earth with all its inhabitants. All they would need is
enough raw materials and the assembly instructions.
Now suppose that a few years later we are contacted by
another extraterrestrial being, one that is unlike anything we
know. This alien does not even reside within our universe, but
in another dimension. The radio signal has somehow managed
to cross the boundary between the two realms. For the sake of
argument, we will assume that we can establish a common
language for communicating with this being. Based on our
previous success, we send the Information about the hourglass
to the strange creature, and suggest that he build one to better
understand our species and civilization. Much to our surprise,
the alien replies: "Thanks for the Information and I will try, but
there are a few things that I will need. Please send electrons,
protons, neutrons, distance, time, and gravitational field." To
our astonishment, we realize that we are communicating with a
being that does not have the same Elements-of-reality that we
do. The alien has the instructions for constructing the hour-
glass, but none of the raw materials.

Fuzziness of the Endpoint
While the method of reduction is a powerful tool for
understanding the world around us, it does have limitations. A
primary problem is that our knowledge of the Elements-of-
Chapter 2: Reduction and Emergence 15

reality is quite fuzzy and not well defined. This is because
science keeps getting better at breaking things into more basic
components. For instance, in the 5th century BC the Greek
philosopher Empedocles believed that everything could be
reduced to just four basic elements, air, fire, earth, and water.
Scientists in the 1800s began to suspect that atoms were the
basic element of all matter, a belief that Albert Einstein turned
into accepted science in 1905. But this was short lived; by the
1930s it was known that atoms are formed from three more
basic particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. By the 1960s
these were further reduced into components called quarks.
Today, research is attempting to express the world as even more
fundamental entities known as strings.
The point is, science has not yet discovered the ultimate
Elements-of-reality. The "best guess" has changed many times

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