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.
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:
Public life would be vastly improved if people relied more on the concept of emergence. Many contributors to the Edge symposium hit on this point.
We often try to understand problems by taking apart and studying their constituent parts. But emergent problems can’t be understood this way. Emergent systems are ones in which many different elements interact. The pattern of interaction then produces a new element that is greater than the sum of the parts, which then exercises a top-down influence on the constituent elements.
Culture is an emergent system. A group of people establishes a pattern of interaction. And once that culture exists, it influences how the individuals in it behave. An economy is an emergent system. So is political polarization, rising health care costs and a bad marriage.
Emergent systems are bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. They have to be studied differently, as wholes and as nested networks of relationships. 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.