Emergence: What does it mean?

Self-Organizing Systems and their Laws

Bioperipatetic is primarily focused on theories and discoveries relating to emergence in the biological sciences.  Emergence as used in this blog refers to the scientifically proven principle that most (if not all) of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology “emerge through collective self-organization” (from A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by R. B. Laughlin, p. x1).  An important property of emergent systems is that they are not deterministic, though they are determinable.  This means that emergent systems are not scientifically predictable (deterministic) but their actual causes can be traced back to the (usually hierarchical) sequence of processes that gave rise to their existent ontology (properties, nature and laws).

Emergent Systems as Hierarchies

Emergence theory, as advocated by Laughlin and embraced by Bioperipatetic, is about the emergence of new laws of physics, chemistry and biology.  The ontology of this principle is the realization of hierarchies of laws corresponding to hierarchies of emergent self-organized systems.  It is the independent hierarchical nature of the physical world that makes it possible to obtain knowledge of the world and its laws at the macroscopic level without having to first understand the underlying child (or sub-) hierarchy from which the macroscopic world and its laws have emerged and upon whose details the macroscopic world does not depend for its higher-level order and related laws of that order.  As Laughlin expresses this crucial concept:

Thus the tendency of nature to form a hierarchical society of physical laws is much more than an academic debating point.  It is why the world is knowable.  It renders the most fundamental laws, whatever they are, irrelevant and protects us from being tyrannized by them.  It is the reason we can live without understanding the ultimate secrets of the universe. —  R. B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down , p. 8.

Here is an excellent summary of the current state of emergence biology.  As you can see, emergence theory today still struggles with the phenomenon of living organism, and cannot yet contend with phenomena such as consciousness and free will.  I would argue that this is due largely (a) to the limitations of modern views of causality as entirely mechanistic, based on an action-to-action Humean paradigm of causality, (b) to a dualist materialist ontology that views Newtonian ‘matter’ as the only substance in the universe, and (c) to the general failure to realize that emergence does not contradict reductionism, but rather adds a new and vitally necessary perspective to the analysis of the evolution and laws of systems in general.  Reductionism is always possible, but is not always sufficient and sometime not even relevant to the understanding of the nature of a complex system.  I plan on discussing these self-imposed limitations of modern science as a separate topics in the future.

For an excellent paper discussing deeply and dispassionately the history and current state of the theory of emergent properties in philosophy and science, see Emergent Properties by Timothy O;Connor et al. in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012, and the related page: Notes to Emergent Properties.

Reductionism versus Constructionism

Emergence is typically contrasted with reductionism in that emergent systems, by their very nature, are not reducible to the properties of their underlying infrastructure and its laws, but manifest new properties and laws at a higher level that while valid do not depend upon nor contradict those underlying laws and ultrastructure.  Thus emergence is by its very nature hierarchical.

To say that emergent systems and phenomena are not dependent for their laws and properties on the infrastructure on which they rest and from which they emerge, is to assert that emergent systems cannot be constructed from the very same laws and properties as those possessed by their underlying infrastructure.   Reductionism must therefore be contrasted with its reciprocal: constructionism.  Contructionism implies that when arguing that a system can be reduced to fundamental laws underlying its behavior and structure, it becomes important to ask oneself if one can from those fundamental laws inductively construct that same system under analysis.  It turns out that this construction from reductionist analysis does not follow from the reductionist analysis and that to believe that reductionism implies constructionism is in fact a fallacy. In his famous and important paper ‘More Is Different‘,  P. W. Anderson explains this as follows:

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a “constructionist” one:  The Ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.  — from “More Is Different: Broken symmetry and the nature of the hierarchical structure of science”, P. W. Anderson, Science 4 August 1972, Vo.. 177, No. 4047, p. 393.

This is consistent with R. B. Laughlin’s above statement that “the most fundamental laws, whatever they are, are irrelevant and protects us from being tyrannized by them.”  This means that one cannot predict, let alone construct, emergent systems from the laws underlying their reduction.   P. W. Anderson states the issue in this way:

In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have on the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.  — from “More Is Different, p. 393.

Before this term was codified by Anderson, Dr. Paul Weiss, in his paper “The Living System: determinism stratified,”   discussed the idea of constructionism  in these words:

We are concerned with living organisms, and for those, we can assert definitely, on the basis of empirical investigation, that the mere reversal of our prior analytic dissection of the Universe by putting the pieces together again, whether in reality or just in our minds, can yield no complete explanation of the behavior of even the most elementary living system. — published in, The Alpbach Symposium 1968: Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences  , p. 7.

Emergent vs. Illusory Properties: Solidity

Emergence is a scientific  concept relating to ontology (the underlying nature of physical existence) not epistemology (how we come to know the nature of physical existence).  Confusing emergent with illusory, there are those who believe that ‘emergence’ is an invalid concept that holds that all macroscopic properties of entities are illusory.  Emergence theory has nothing to do with sensory illusions, but holds, for example, that the solidity of objects is an emergent (not illusory) property of objects directly perceived at the macroscopic level of human perception.  Emergence theory argues that the perceived solidity is a real objective property of objects, as against the view of many modern physicists and philosophers, who tell us that solidity is an illusion, since it is scientifically proven that so-called ‘solid’ objects are entirely composed of atoms, which are themselves mostly empty space.

As you can see, the majority of the atom is just empty space, with the electrons swirling around the nucleus like tiny bees drunk on nectar. Put a bunch of those spacious atoms together and you have “solid” matter. – from The Illusion of Solidity   by  / September 8, 2013

For, according to the atomic theory of matter, all atoms consist of a concentrated nucleus wrapped in a ‘cloud’ of electrons which ‘orbit’ the nucleus at a radius a thousand  times the diameter of the nucleus.   Between the electron layer and the nuclear material there exists only ’empty space’ or ‘a vacuum’ empty of matter.

There is no physical substance filling up space and so excluding more of that substance. There are only the spaces between the solid nuclei which are occupied by the foggy clouds of electrons extending far beyond those nuclei. So you don’t actually feel anything solid and you don’t see anything solid. You are merely experiencing the repulsive forces of electrical charges spread out into space. Matter is mostly made of a fog of electronic probabilities with nothing solid that is ever interacted with. Solidity is the substantialist [sic] illusion of common sense realism. [emphasis added] – from SciForums.com: The illusion of material solidity. post by Magical Realist; 08-18-13

The renowned popularizer of science, Sir Arthur Eddington wrote his tale of ‘The Two Tables’:

“I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my chairs to my two tables. Two tables! … One of them has been familiar to me from earliest years. It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world … It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial … Table No. 2 is my scientific table … My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed … There is nothing substantial about my second table. It is nearly all empty space … my second scientific table is the only one which is really there – whatever ‘there’ may be.”– (Sir Arthur Eddington, The Gifford Lectures, 1933, pp. xi-xiv)

Appearance and Reality

To address the concept of ‘solidity as an illusion‘ versus the concept of ‘solidity as an emergent real property’ of aggregated matter, there are several ideas about ‘emergence’ (properly understood) that require clarification. The fact of object solidity is a good example, and I will use it to make my point.

Firstly, as stated above, emergence does not imply that our perceptual awareness of the world is one of ‘mere appearance’ or ‘illusion’.  Nor that our senses fail us in being unable to perceive the ultrastructure of objects, implying that appearances (such as perceived solidity) are the manifestation of this failure.  Solidity, in emergence theory, is not about ‘appearance versus reality.’ It holds that solidity is real as is our awareness of it (though for different reasons).  Solidity is emergent because it is a property of aggregated (organized macroscopic) matter that is not present in nor reducible to the properties (or characters) of its underlying constituents (i.e., its infrastructure) from which it is nevertheless derived, i.e., from which it causally emerges.  Atoms are not solid, nor do they manifest continuity, only massive aggregates of atoms can, at the macroscopic level, display solidity as an emergent property of organized aggregation in a given physical context.

As stated earlier, modern physicists tell us that, at the atomic level, which is not directly available to our senses, the bulk of the structure of matter consists of ‘empty space’ in which there exists highly energetic exceedingly tiny charged particles constituting the structure and dynamics of atoms, which themselves combine into more complex structures called molecules.  Solids consist of molecular structures, such as crystals, which exhibit the aggregate property of solidity by virtue of their resistance to penetration by other systems of solid structures.  Solidity also manifests structural stability, rather than fluidity or random agitation. Thus the property of solidity is an emergent property that cannot be reduced to (i.e., found to be present in) the isolated properties of the elementary particles of which it is composed and from which its properties are derived in the global context of the aggregate whole.  Solidity does not follow the analogy of bricks as the solid manifestation of compact sand particles.  Atoms are not solids.  Thus solidity is an emergent principle that references real properties and laws of natural entities where such properties cannot be reduced to nor derived from the laws defining the substratum of their physical atomic elements.

Secondly, emergence is neither a method of concept formation nor an epistemological tool for building knowledge from an atomistic base to high-level abstractions. Emergence theory is a scientific perspective allowing us to understand the macroscopic world and its laws given the facts that the infrastructure upon which these laws are based neither exhibit nor directly account for the laws and properties of the macroscopic world. Emergence theory stands in contrast with and raises doubts about the adequacy of such commonly held metaphysical concepts as mechanistic reductionism,  a doctrine that has dominated modern science since the time of Newton and Descartes. Science is not, in the case of emergence theory or reductionism, an attempt to displace proper epistemology and metaphysics.  Indeed, the validity of the senses is taken for granted by objective science.   Nevertheless, ontology is an important and disputed area in the history of science.

Thirdly, it must be remembered that the underlying physical nature of entities is not given to the senses.  What is given are the ecological features of entities in their relationship to the exploring observer.   On this question I am in agreement with J. J. Gibson, author of The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems  and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.  (For my thesis based on Gibson’s work, see The Causal Basis of Perception). We see the true ecological properties of objects and events but we cannot, with perception alone, detect why they have their appearances nor what underlies the basis for these appearances. These latter questions require that we explore the world, interact with it, and induce its nature from such interactions and form concepts and ultimately theories of the invisible principles that account for that which we perceive.

At the primitive level, essential for survival and effective functioning in the world, animals are able to perceive what is out there through exploratory sensory-motor interaction with the world.  We share this cognitive ability with animals, but go far beyond it by having a form of consciousness that can ask questions about the world that transcends the given concretes of entity awareness and interaction.

Man’s rational powers allow him to  adopt what Kurt Goldstein calls ‘the abstract attitude’, that is the attitude required to abstract away the concretes, to grasp the merely possible, and to generalize about the ‘whatness’ of the concretes. We can ask ourselves ‘what is the general case that I am dealing with?’ We can imagine what is possible if the current concretes were changed, allowing us to go beyond the merely given. We can consciously break apart perceived concrete patterns and treat the sub-patterns as possible entities with their own order and significance.  Kurt Goldstein shows through a series of clinical examinations of patients’ performances that brain-injured patients loose their capacity to assume the abstract attitude and are limited to performing (however skillfully) only concrete tasks and see in patterns only those that seem to represent familiar concrete objects.  (See Goldstein’s Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology, Lecture II, Pathology and the Nature of Man, Schoken Books,  New York, , 1940).

Solidity Revisited

Returning, finally, to the topic of confusing emergence with illusion, such as the idea above that perceived actual solidity of objects as emergent supports the argument that our senses are unreliable and subject to illusion, since the underlying infrastructure of the mostly ‘empty’ and energetic atoms does not at the infrastructural level manifest solidity.

Platonic Origins of the Argument from Illusion

This view of the emergence principle is incorrect, as we have explained above.  Thus emergence theory does not embrace the so-called ‘argument from illusion,’ which, since the time of Plato, holds that what is given to the senses is inadequate to provide us with awareness of the real world, and is at best a mere suggestion and at worst an illusion, a ‘myth of the caves,’ as Plato put this idea,  in which we see shadows cast on the walls of the cave but cannot turn to see the light that creates those shadows, as Plato would say, yet we  must, Plato argues,  reject the shadows of our perceptions and replace them with a form of  metaphysical idealism, if we wish to know the ‘real’ world,  a world of perfect ideas, transcending the physical world, which is essentially a reflection of perfect ideas reified as imperfect objects corrupted by mere matter.

Platonic Idealism vs. Aristotelian Realism

Aristotle and Gibson reject this argument and hold that the perception provides direct contact with the real world.  Gibson would add that perception can be improved with practiced focused exploration, in search of finer subtleties.   Thus Aristotle’s epistemological and ontological realism (also embraced by Gibson) is a scientific antidote to Plato’s ‘myth of the caves’ and offers a superior model for understanding emergence as a natural principle found everywhere in nature.

Copyright © 2012-2014 by bioperipatetic.  Published on December 17, 2012  3:09 pm

Copyright (c) 2014, 2015 by Jack H. Schwartz (a.k.a. bioperipatetic).  All rights reserved. 

Latest revision:  July 30, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

Keywords:  emergence, reductionism, constructionism, causality, self-organizing systems, hierarchies, physical properties, appearance and reality, materialist solidity


Comments by the Author:

If emergent properties were non-emergent under microscopic ‘inspection’, then they would not be emergent, but merely reductive, i.e., fully explained in terms of the properties of their substratum.

However, let us not misunderstand reductionism, for if the nature of the emergent properties or entities are a necessary precondition for our understanding the potentialities of their infrastructure, then there is no surprise, for the emergent properties, by virtue of the law of identity, must not contradict the potentialities of their infrastructure (or ultrastructure, or foundational ontology). This last is NOT a form of physical reductionism but of epistemological induction only.

bioperipatetic  Submitted on  2014/04/09 at 5:17 pm


You know that you are dealing with emergent phenomena when they exhibit new laws and principles that cannot be reformulated into the laws reigning at the level of their ontological infrastructure. An obvious example is that of volition or ‘free will’. Attempting (as has been tried by physicists and philosophers alike) to reduce volition to the mechanistic determinism of the organisms molecular structure (or infrastructure) is a contradiction in terms.

Furthermore, attempting to use the concept of ‘random’ or ‘stochastic’ properties of subatomic particles as analogous with free will, in that randomness is also unpredictable, and is therefore in some (vague) sense ‘free’, commits a serious epistemological fallacy: that of equating ‘indeterminate’ (contextually unknowable) with ‘volitional’ (contextually unconstrained), and, in addition, committing the error of forgetting that the concept of random is (despite all of the protestations of modern physics) an epistemological concept (of uncertainty measurement) and not a metaphysical property of any particle or substance.

This latter, by the way, is in my view one of the major fallacies underlying the entire attempt to build an ontology of quantum theory based on the concept of the quantum ‘wave’, a contradictory quasi-ontological, superposition of all possible states of an entity, each multiplied by its ‘probability of outcome’. Here again, the physicist is equivocating on the meaning of probability, for probability is entirely an epistemological concept that attempts to measure our degree of uncertainty. Note: OUR degree of uncertainty, not the entity’s degree of uncertainty. This latter phraseology commits is a category fallacy: confusing the ontological with the epistemological.

Based on just the above analysis, one can see how modern physics, especially quantum physics, is caught up in a philosophical quandary manifested as a cognitive dissonance brought about by its failure to clarify and separate its epistemological, methodological (especially its empiric-mathematical), and its ontological problems.

bioperipatetic  Submitted on  2014/04/09 at 5:28 pm


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