Grokking Emergence


Random thoughts in search of emergent order.


So I’ve explained “grokking.” Now, what is this emergence thing anyway?

As I understand it, and use it on this blog, emergence means a property of a complex system that arises out of or results from the interactions of the system’s components. It is not itself a characteristic of any individual part or discrete interaction within the system, but instead a property of the system as a whole.

Some examples:

  • Human consciousness, which arises from the interactions of neurons and axons, none of which are themselves “conscious.”
  • Markets, which arise out of discrete transactions between buyers and sellers.
  • “Hive minds” (think bee or ant behavior), which arise out of the actions of the members of the colonies.

What’s compelling about emergence is that we don’t (and so far can’t) understand the causative chain between the individual parts of the system and the emergent behavior. We’ll be looking at all kinds of complex systems and their emergent properties here in an attempt to identify common traits and maybe gain a better understanding of how emergence arises.


Filed under: Terminology


Since science fiction author Robert Heinlein coined “grok” for his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I will let his character Dr. Mahmoud explain the word’s etymology and meaning:

“But the Martian language is so much more complex than is English [that] I’m not certain that it will ever be possible for us to think in Martian…. [T]ake this one word: ‘grok.’ Its literal meaning, one which I suspect goes back to the origin of the Martian race as thinking, speaking creatures… is quite easy. ‘Grok’ means ‘to drink’….

“[But it could also mean] a hundred other English words, words which represent what we think of as different concepts, even pairs of antithetical concepts. And ‘grok’ means all of these, depending on how you use it. It means ‘fear,’ it means ‘love,’ it means ‘hate’–proper hate, [as] you cannot possibly hate anything unless you grok it completely, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you–then and only then can you hate it. By hating yourself….

“The Martians seem to know instinctively what we learned painfully from modern physics, that the observer interacts with the observed simply through the process of observation. ‘Grok’ means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the process being observed–to merge, to blend, to intermarry, to lose personal identity in group experience. It means almost everything we mean by religion, philosophy, and science–and it means as little to us as color means to a blind man.”

Filed under: Quotes, Terminology

Mission Statement

“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of what is to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things that bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoecus

Filed under: Quotes