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Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1664
"The kids still want to see the cats, up close and now …"

The neighbor kids flocked toward the front door, demanding to see our kittens. The cats, on their first foray outside, strictly supervised and extremely wary, quickly disappeared back inside. I explained the dilemma to the kids: wanting to see them up close pretty much guarantees that they might see them from afar, fleeing. Searching for them ensures that they'll never be found. If they want to see them, they'd have to be satisfied with watching them from the distance of the street, but not even that alternative guarantees that they'll see 'em. The kids, baffled by my babbling, quickly dispersed, leaving me wondering what I'd just described. It occurred to me that the cats had become a decent allegory for Emergence-y, and seeing them at all, a good example of an emergent property. Sometimes, certainly not every time, when conditions seem right to them, the cats emerge, never together, almost always one after another. Sometimes Molly emerges first and sometimes, Max. I can't ask them about the criteria they employ to determine if it's safe enough to emerge. The conditions seem to vary. I'm left with inventing various speculations about what constitute necessary and sufficient conditions, most of which seem to serve to satisfy my curiosity without actually explaining anything.

When I leave the front door ajar, they sometimes emerge.
A short gust of breeze might be enough signal to send them scurrying back inside. Some noises seem to spook them while others seem to spark their curiosity. Emergence-y works like this. No precise formula could exist for prompting any specific response. Sometimes Max comes right up to rub his fur on me and others, seemingly identical conditions, he turns feral and flees. Molly's more predictable since she always avoids any touch, though she sometimes consents to smell my finger. I have no reliably predictive story to explain any of their behavior, though I've noticed an increasing interest from them in sniffing around outside. They've taken to napping near the door just in case I come by to open it. They cannot predict when I'll come by, like I cannot reliably predict how they'll respond to any invitation to head outside.

Maybe they're just exhibiting their native finickiness, a term that means 'exasperated explanatory story.' No clear pattern seems to determine response, so I concoct a story which insists that they're unpredictable. A more careful observer might well better perceive predictive patterns, but for me, they remain mostly mystery. I remain a steadfast CartoonScientist, but I still propose postulates and test crude theories, attempting to find stories that explain the world around me. I can turn some of these stories into genuine recipes, endlessly repeatable procedures for producing desired effects. Once the kittens settle in, I expect that our relationship will become increasingly routine and predictable, but being cats, I expect their ways to remain at least somewhat mysterious for the duration. Much of their behavior seems more emergent than engineered, or, indeed, engineer-able.

Dealing with emergence seems fundamentally different from creating something. When creating some
thing, procedures can define the means by which that thing comes into being. Baking a birthday cake seems a matter of long tradition, requiring perhaps practice, but no actual inventing. Producing a Happy Birthday, seems more an Emergent Property, one ascribable to some but not all birthdays, regardless of the cake produced, perhaps because Happy doesn't qualify as a thing. Emergence-ies share this certain unthinginess. Catching the cats might qualify as a perfectly reasonable-seeming aspiration, but could never actually become a thing, so no recipe exists for achieving that end. One might cleverly, Wylie Cyote-like, devise a strategy for achieving an emergent end without very reliably ever achieving that end.

Some of the tragedy in this world begins with this sort of fundamental misunderstanding borne by failing to properly distinguish between thing and no-thing. We might aspire to wellness, for instance, without ever agreeing on the precise steps required to experience it. We might accumulate piles of apparent preconditions which seem to correlate, in our own experience, with the emergence of wellness, without ever discovering the recipe for producing it. Wellness might not be so much a product—a result of any specific process—but an emergence-y phenomena, never fully qualifying as a thing. As a no-thing, a great body of anecdotal evidence accretes around it. Old Wives Tales abound, but they never quite reduce to specific prescription or recipe. Many different philosophies claim to best understand how to produce it. None precisely wrong, but none definitively right, either. Theological wars rage to determine which philosophy might be most correct, as if that really mattered. Such is Emergence-y.

Our current pandemic seems to be spinning off contradictory New Wive's Tales with increasing velocity. Each day brings another discovery which the next day might discredit. We are still poking sticks into darkness, though some patterns seem to be dawning from what started out as essentially pitch blackness. We have no cure, and might not ever discover one. The virus still seems Emergence-y. It might, like SARS did, simply fade away without ever eliciting any definitive treatments. We are learning how to avoid contacts which might encourage its emergence, which seems to be producing preliminary positive results in flattening the notorious exponential infection and death curves. It all seems so unnerving because its explanatory story's still emerging. Apparent inadvertency still sort of rules, and not everyone's bought into the admittedly preliminary explanations. The kids still want to see the cats, up close and now, but Emergence-y still prevails.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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