I came across the game of life in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and decided to research it a little further. Designed by John Horton Conway, the game of life is interesting because it is a universe based on two very simple rules that generates surprising organized complexity. Here’s a short video illustrating these properties:

All of this reminds me of a discussion Dominic and I had a year or so ago in another context. In that context, Dominic was objecting to my use of the term emergence. My memory of the actual discussion is a bit fuzzy now, but if I recall correctly Dominic’s concern was with those ideas of emergence that posit some sort of gap between simple rules or principles governing a system and properties of the emergent system. This sort of emergence is akin to magic, in the sense that it asserts the irreducibility of the system to its rules or principles. Emergent properties thus become something “ontologically spooky”.

The game of life perhaps provides the possibility of a more rigorous conception of emergence. The properties that emerge within the system are all made possible based on the rules, constraints, or principles governing the system but are not strictly predictable within these constraints. As Dennett articulates this sort of emergence, “…the properties [are]… unpredictable in principle from the mere analysis of the micro-properties of the [system]” (415). There is nothing magical here, as these properties are products of the constraints underlying the system. Perhaps a clearer way of putting the issue is that the results of the system are not themselves programmed, but rather are rendered possible by the constraints on the system. This seems to be similar to what biologist Stuart Kauffman is getting at in books like The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. What he draws attention to are certain physical constraints in matter that give rise to persistent organization under specific conditions. It is unfortunate that he’s chosen to dress up this thesis in the trappings of a sort of spiritualism in books like At Home in the Universe. Ah well, no accounting for taste.