Emergence is a conceptual phenomenon, not physical

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    • #28679

        I have had the concept of Emergence on my mind for a long time. Since a lot has been written about the concept, it will take a long time to do it justice in the sense that I correctly cite people who have made meaningful contributions to our understanding of emergence. So, the following is a necessarily slipshod job. But since the topic has come up in a couple of Religious Naturalist contexts lately, I want to put a few ideas out so as to start a dialog.

        Emergence is sometimes considered to be “Something more from nothing but”, to quote Ursula Goodenough and Terry Deacon in their 2008 article “The Scared Emergence of Nature”. Another way of putting it is that “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

        Another way of putting it is ontologically, as a form of existence, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2020 article on Emergence by Timothy O’Comner: “Accounts of emergence of both strong and weak varieties typically suppose that emergents modally depend on their physical bases, such that it is necessary that if an emergent occurs, some or other physical basis occurs, and it is further necessary that if that basis occurs the emergent occurs.”

        I am going to focus on these two articles. Note that the second article uses a lot of technical terms from the philosophical literature, such as supervenience.

        I start having problems with the notion of emergence analyzed from a purely physical standpoint once we get deeper into the analysis. Here are some examples:

        “Whereas reductionism has yielded splendid results in science, there is an important sense in which it is artificial, and in this sense false. By starting from wholes and moving ‘down’ into parts, one is moving in the opposite direction from the way matters arise. To grasp how matters arise, one must run the muscle movie backwards, from the subatom to the atom to the amino acid to the protein to the polymer to the cell to the muscle to the contraction. To make such a movie, it is essential to begin with reductionist understandings—otherwise, there is no way to know what to put in the movie. But once the cast of characters is identified—once it is understood how proteins fold and myosin hydrolyses ATP and so on—it is possible to narrate such understandings in the correct temporal and spatial sequence, moving ‘upwards’ from one level to the next.” [Goodenough and Deacon, 2008]

        “The key concept: if one starts with something like a water molecule, it is nothing but two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but each molecule has something-else properties that cannot be ascribed to hydrogen alone nor to oxygen alone. The interaction between the three atoms entails a reconfiguration of electron orbitals and generates a trapezoid-shaped entity that is more electrically positive on one facet and more negative on the opposite facet. Compared with hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a water molecule has unprecedented attributes, because the joining of these atoms has distorted the shapes of each and produced a composite shape with its own intrinsic properties. In chemistry, shape matters.” [Goodenough and Deacon, 2008]

        “Special sciences describe non-ubiquitous, structured phenomena (e.g., plate tectonics, molecular interactions, cellular repair, and organismic development) and successfully predict their behavior through higher-level laws. Weak emergentists take the existence of such stable and distinctive phenomena, amenable to high-level but not low-level explanation, as reason to accept the taxonomic categories of the special sciences into our ontology of the natural world, no less real than the categories of a final, completed physics. On this view, there are molecules, cells, organisms, and minded creatures, and they do not reduce to—are not identical to—complex combinations of basic physical entities or features. Correspondingly, explanations adverting to special science laws are to some extent autonomous from the explanations adverting to laws of lower-level physical theories.” [O’conner 2020].

        “Strong emergentists maintain that at least some higher-level phenomena exhibit a weaker dependence/stronger autonomy than weak emergence permits. This often takes the form of rejecting physical realization, affirming fundamental higher-level causal powers, or both…Perhaps the most commonly cited phenomena offered as requiring strong emergentist treatment have to do with the nature and capacities of the conscious mind in relation to its neural substrate. Other non-mental, scientific phenomena also have been advanced as possibly or plausibly requiring treatment in strong emergentist terms. … In a series of articles culminating in a 2016 book, Carl Gillett advances a distinctive account of strong emergence rooted in a hierarchy-of-mechanism picture of complex systems that, he maintains, is strongly supported by a range of sciences. Gillett invokes considerable conceptual machinery in developing his view; making substitutions in linked definitions, we arrive at the following compact statement: A property is strongly emergent just in case it is a property of a composed individual that is realized and that (in addition to having same-level effects) non-productively determines the individual’s parts to have powers that they would not have given only the laws/principles of composition manifested in simpler collectives.” [O’Conner 2020]

        The problem is that emergence cannot just be considered as the opposite of reduction. This is what happens when you focus on the physical world.

        Actually, O’Conner phrases the problem very nicely:

        Emergentists of all varieties standardly are physical substance monists about the natural world: all worldly (natural or artifactual) entities are composed or otherwise “made of” entities that would be described in a completed fundamental physics, whether physical particles, fields, strings, or something else. This view is common enough among emergentists that some influential theorists took it to be a defining element of the doctrine. One might maintain, consistent with substance monism, that wholes exhibiting strongly emergent, efficacious properties are fundamental, albeit composite objects or systems, on the grounds that quantification over them is required for a minimally adequate account of the world’s dynamics. This might also give rise to an objective basis for identity through time, even for organisms undergoing constant change of parts (see O’Connor & Jacobs 2003). … But one can argue that strong emergentism, at least with respect to some or all mental states, in fact requires a form of substance dualism. On a biological view of emergent thinkers, the micro-physical boundaries of such thinkers may inevitably be vague, for empirical reasons. But it is perhaps doubtful that fundamental causal laws associated with strongly emergent properties would reference vague conditions. The sole apparent alternative is that the properties are instantiated in a distinct, non-vague object instead, as a non-physical mind would be. [O’Conner 2020]

        This gets to the very heart of the problem. A purely substance monist view of reality cannot describe the real world, because it cannot describe the nature of emergence.

        Put another way, emergence arises out of the nature of information and ontologically abstract objects (facts, observations, ideas and theories). Emergence is not inherent in the physical world.

        For example, here is where a purely physical notion of emergence gets into trouble:

        “The important concept to grasp here is that the genome in no way represents a ‘blueprint’ for a multicellular organism—there exists no top-down design entity that can be analogized to an architect’s blueprint. Nor is the organism assembled from pre-existing ‘parts’, like a house or a car. Rather, the organism literally builds itself, bottom-up, assembling tiny parts that modulate the assembly of the next set of tiny parts, where the same old protein families are used in novel combinatorial patterns along the way, all under the aegis of initial conditions and boundary conditions established and maintained by the information encoded in housekeeping genes. Thermodynamics, morphodynamics, and teleodynamics set up the constraints and possibilities, but organisms are not predetermined—even if they come into being in remarkably predictable ways. Their features predictably emerge because these emergent features are made almost inevitable by the hierarchy of biases of lower-order emergent features… Particularly ‘underdetermined’ is the process of mammalian brain formation, albeit, again, features emerge in a predictable fashion—all gorilla brains, for example, are far more similar to one another than they are similar to the brains of any other species. While genes again switch on and oV in various cell lineages at critical junctures during brain development, most of the action entails cell–cell interactions via protein receptors and hormones as the neurons move up into the cranium and establish connections with one other. Moreover, most of these hormones and receptors are not brain-specific: again they’re the some old protein families put to use in a neurogenesis context. When one absorbs the fact that a mature mammalian brain may contain 100 billion neurons, each in synaptic communication with some 1,000 other neurons, all put together under the watch of a genome with some 20,000 genes, one comes to understand why it is so inaccurate to speak of a gene as being ‘for’ a particular mental capacity. True, a mutant gene encoding an aberrant protein may in some cases generate an aberrant brain function outcome, but this is not because that gene encodes that outcome; it’s because the aberrant protein is defective in pointing neurogenesis in a particular emergent direction. Embryogenesis occurs in environmental contexts—soils, ponds, nests, the uterus—and all brains, even clam brains, are capable of learning from experience. More generally, all creatures come into being and make a living in environmental contexts, where each ecosystem represents a rich interdigitation of the organic and inorganic, of organisms and planet. Genomes are transmitted to offspring when, and only when, all of this comes together. Life is not about survival of the fittest; it’s about fitting in.” [Goodenough and Deacon, 2008]

        The problem with this description is that there is no explanation or description of how embryogenesis occurs. As far as this discussion goes, it happens almost magically. It emerges, but there is no mechanism for the emergence. The same problem comes in a discussion of how purpose or teleology arises out of living things. And yet again, there is no purely physical explanation for consciousness.

        This is a problem that has held back biology and genomics for twenty years. At the time of the Human Genome Project, they identified about 20,000 or so genes as making up the genome. The rest of it was considered “Junk DNA”. Well, no. The structure of plants and animals is specified to excruciating detail in the genome. The basic machines – the proteins – that make the cells of our body run and hold them together is about 2% of the genome. The other 98% is composed of detailed body plans. including the structures that make up the nervous system.

        To repeat my observation above, the fundamental problem is that the physical world just is what it is, regardless of how you view emergence. Emergence is a concept. It must be considered ontologically not as a property of physical things, but as the relationship between abstract things. Because emergence is considered just physically, it is claimed that it emerges “naturally”, which begs the question of what part of nature the emergence resides.

        To come up with a coherent theory of emergence, you have to have some concept of dualism. Besides the purely physical world, there is also the world of ideas. This does not imply a separate “spiritual” world, though, which is termed “substance dualism”. Instead, you can consider an intermediate notion of “property dualism”. This is a version of substance monism – the world is one substance (there is no spiritual realm), but you have to consider the informational properties of the real world along with the physical. Emergence arises out of the nature of information.

        The attempt to come up with a purely physical definition of emergence usually involves either a reference to thermodynamics and entropy or to Shannon’s theories, which are based on entropy also. This is a common mistake. Thermodynamics, considered as a form of statistical mechanics, is driven by random chance, which is a poor basis to describe the structure of information. And Shannon’s theories are not about information qua information, despite what is normally thought of. Shannon, in his original article “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” explicitly says his theory is not about information. It is about the physical transfer of information, which is something totally different.

        If you want to delve into the theory of what information is, it can be expressed either through Kolmogorov Complexity or through Vigo’s Generalized Representational Information Theory.

        As to property dualism, my medium essay “Hylomorphic Functions: Is consciousness quantized?” is a good place to start. This is one possible approach to Property Dualism

        This is enough for now. I offer this summary as a starting point for discussion.

        Tony Van der Mude

      • #28684

          Very interesting article Tony! I look forward to reading your article in Medium.

          This is an interesting video that delves into some of the latest speculations about quantum reality and information theory.


          • This reply was modified 10 months, 3 weeks ago by tfindlay.
        • #28824

            What a fascinating subject and exposition, Tony. Thank you. This is clearly way over my head but I am curious and always eager to learn and explore new ideas (for me, they are :)). You go over so many interesting points about emergence but they are too many for me to address them all with the depth I wanted. So, let me take just a small nip of all the points you make and ask you to comment and expand on what you think about Susan Greenfield’s take that consciousness do really changes the brain physically. That brains that think on different things are measurabily different. She cites multiple experiments and evidence of such. (a good summary in one of her interviews). To me it contrasts to something you say about that “there is no purely physical explanation for consciousness.”. My point is, don’t you think that, the synapses resulting of studying the maps of London by its taxi drivers before taking the test change the brain *physically* in a way that later, during the test, can lead to the emergence of a map of London, or at least, parts of it in the taxi driver’s mind/consciousness when taking the test or during a taxi drive? Wouldn’t that be a purely physically explanation of consciousness? If not, why not?

            Another thing is regarding emergence being a concept and not physical. Isn’t it like everything we know? We only have concepts in our mind that can better or worse reflect the objective reality. Whatever we use to conceptualize and materialize the objective reality in our brains doesn’t imply that it doesn’t exist in physical reality. From what I’ve understood of emergence as described by Ursula in her book is that there are real physical properties that emerge from the properties of the system’s constituents and the interactions between the constituents.

            A water molecule is nothing but an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms bonded in a V-shaped configuration, but when many liquid water molecules are frozen, their bonds form an open lattice with the emergent property called buoyancy—ice floats.

            My point is, buoyancy is a physical characteristic emerged from how the water molecules bond in certain circumstances (cold) that emerged when ice is dropped into water. You can say that emergence is a concept but only just as buoyancy is. No? Did I miss your point? If so, can you try to explain in another words why do you say that Emergence is a conceptual phenomenon, not physical.

            Thank you!


            • #28826

                Thanks – great response. Certainly what you think about affects the physical properties of your brain, but I am going deeper than that. I got the first part of my work published as “Causally Active Metaphysical Realism”. What I am getting at is that people think ideas are inert: they are epiphenomena that sit about the physical world which does all the work. I am saying that, no the world of ideas and the physical world interact.

                Now, about emergence, I am saying that emergence is not the creation of physical properties. It is the creation of new concepts. So the physical work is expressed by Schrodinger’s Wave equation, which has all of the emergent properties we know or will every know. It is the Tao, if you will. So buoyancy is not a physical characteristic that emerged from water. It was always in the water. Buoyancy is a conceptual characteristic of our understanding of the water. This is important because it means that emergence is a process in the development of out understanding of the physical world, but it is not part of the physical world. It is a concept. That Tao is always the Tao.

                Tony Van der Mude

            • #28888

                Emerson writes:

                [In] this brief (8 min) interview with Stuart Kaufmann … he elucidates his idea of “ceaseless creativity” and his summary comment about “reinventing the sacred”.

                The idea of “radical emergence” comes up as well.

                Is this a modern version of a ‘life force’?

                Seriously, the idea of (emergent) regularities that exist, or will be displayed, once various underlying structures are in place, doesn’t eliminate cause and effect … even if we can’t predict the emergent behaviors from the parts …

                It just means there are (preexisting) regularities to be discovered at the macroscopic level like there are (preexisting) regularities to be discovered at the Newtonian level and at the quantum level.

                We just don’t generally like the term ‘life force’ … probably because of unwanted connotations.

                But the structure seems to be there. And as David says, we ARE part of that structure.

                To tie it together with our emotive side, we often “feel” the identity before we can “explain” the identity.


                I don’t think it is valid to consider “radical emergence” as a life force.

                In the posting on emergence entitled “Emergence is a conceptual phenomenon, not physical” I am trying to make the case that. contrary to the way emergence is thought of, emergence is not part of physical reality as such. Instead, emergence is better considered as part of the realm of thoughts and ideas.

                Think of it this way: Reality is what it is. This is a Taoist approach to reality. Regardless of how we think and feel, reality is deeper and more mysterious than any of our ideas or theories.

                So, as you say “there are (preexisting) regularities to be discovered” – in reality, at any level, because the level don’t exist in reality either. They are concepts. They are ways of understanding reality.

                You are certainly right that we “feel” the identity, because thought is built on feelings and emotions. It is the emotional valence of our ideas that give them meaning. A concept divorced from our feelings is abstract and meaningless.

                But we have to understand the distinction between ideas and reality. These feelings do not become a real force – of any kind.

                The unwanted connotation of postulating a “life force” is this. It is a type of magical thinking. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. This desire for magic has always been a part of the human condition. It even shows up nowadays with some sorts of New Age thinking. But it goes back all the way to the start of Christianity with “In the Beginning was the Word”. As if saying something made it real.

                This is the hidden danger of thinking that emergence comes out of the physics of the world. No, it doesn’t. The emergent properties of reality are preexisting regularities that were there even before we discovered them.

                Put another way, what emerges from emergence is in the mind. Its power is that it allows us to understand the world better. But the Tao is what it is. Emergence does not create a new physics or a new reality or a new force that we can harness.

                As expressed, it does not eliminate cause and effect. But it allows us to see that relationship more clearly, after that relationship has emerged and become part of our feelings and our way of explaining reality.

              • #28889

                  Tony — I request two things. First, please watch the Kauffman video. Second, please read p. 25 and pp. 31-32 of new edition of Sacred Depths. IMO the part to focus on is not a free-floating noun like Emergence but the adjective emergent as in emergent properties and emergent dynamics. These are the something -elses-from-nothing-buts. They are very real. Like swim bladders.

                • #28896

                    Is the catalytic fold of an enzyme a concept?

                  • #28897

                      It is a concept. It is our understanding of reality. See:


                    • #28898

                        Can’t penetrate your article — don’t have the training. But explain why that enzyme fold is an understanding of reality and not reality as well.

                      • #28899

                          I am having problems posting. I spent an hour on a long response to your request earlier today and it disappeared in a cloud of bits. It just refused to post. So I am going to explain the difference and why it is important to Religious Naturalism as a bunch of short posts. Please bear with me.

                        • #28900

                            Calling catalytic folds, or swim bladders or even “ice” as real emergent object turns the natural world into just physical objects with no place for concepts. The real world, the Tao, is real but transcends our ideas. But our ideas are the only way to understand reality.

                            Naturalism, to use a technical term from philosophy is Stanstance Monism. But materialists, like Dennett, try to argue away the existence of ideas. Ideas are not things that exist in a separate plane of Platonic existence. Instead they are a property of reality. This is a materialism called Property Dualism. One reality, two properties – physical and conceptual.


                            • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by vandermude.
                          • #28902

                              I’m not trying to argue away the existence of ideas/concepts as being part of reality. I’m saying that the physical objects are part of reality as well. Are we going around in circles?


                            • #28903

                                This is a different take on the question: “what do you mean by ‘real'”?

                                If you consider emergent properties real, you have ignored the interplay between ideas and the physical world. Keep in mind this important point. I am not saying ideas have an independent existence. I am saying that they are a property of reality as much as matter and energy are.

                                Calling emergence a concept makes explicit this point: reality goes on being real no matter what we think. But there are many ways to think about the world. Each one of those ways represents another type of emergence if you consider emergence to be conceptual.

                                If you consider emergence to be a physical property instead of a conceptual property, then you have the problem of a change of conceptual basis. For example, the catalytic fold is a process that manipulates the proteins in the cell. But you could consider the cell as a network of teleological states. Then this catalytic fold was actually an achievement of a goal. That transforms the notion of a cell from a collection of proteins and enzymes into a collection of purposes.

                              • #28904

                                  But the underlying natural world didn’t change. What changed is the way you think about it.

                                  The point is that emergence is a way of thinking, not a way of being. If you consider emergence to be real, then considering emergence to be physically real imposes a way of thinking of reality that is an illusion. No, a swim bladder or a catalytic fold is not physical. It is a way of looking at reality.

                                  In metaphysics and ontology, there is a concept called the “block world”. That is, the world of physical reality is just this space/time block. Does this mean that our concepts of reality are just an illusion? No, I am arguing that the concepts are a property of reality.

                                • #28905

                                    “I’m not trying to argue away the existence of ideas/concepts as being part of reality. I’m saying that the physical objects are part of reality as well. Are we going around in circles?”

                                    No the point is more subtle. The physical objects are what they are. In Quantum Mechanics, they are the Schrodinger wave equation. The problem comes up when you perceive reality. Emergence is a perception – it is not the underlying reality.

                                    In my work, I am arguing that the emergence comes out of the wave function collapse, which is where ideas come from. If you are holding a swim bladder or a block of ice or a crystal in your hand, what you are doing is primarily on the conceptual level. The underlying Tao of physical reality is much more subtle.

                                    So this is not going around in circles so much as a warning to have an “epistemological humility”. The reason I am making a big deal about this is that if you consider emergence to be part of the physical world, you run the risk of confusing your understanding of reality with reality as it is.

                                    Kant described this as the difference between phenomena and noumena. Emergence is a phenomenon.

                                    • This reply was modified 9 months, 1 week ago by vandermude.
                                  • #28907

                                      Um, this isn’t a risk for me.

                                      Over and out on this from Ursula. Hope others will chime in.


                                    • #28908

                                        Posting for vandermude

                                        I watched the video before I posted. I will re-read the relevant pages.

                                        These comments originally arose from a careful reading of Terry Deacon’s Incomplete Nature and the article in Zygon, which I quoted in the original post.

                                        So you might see that I have covered what you are getting at already in my previous post.

                                        “We are now poised to introduce a key concept, emergence, that we will encounter on many occasions throughout this book. Stable chemical relationships between materials often generate what are called emergent properties – “something else from nothing but.” A water molecule is nothing but an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms bonded in a V-shaped configuration, but when many such molecules are frozen, they form an open lattice with the emergent property called buoyancy – ice floats. A crystalized mineral displays the emergent property called its hardness; materials that foster the flow of chemical reactions possess the property called catalytic potential. ”

                                        “We can now consider the autogen in the context of emergence. Each of the soup molecules, and each of the catalysts, and each of the capsid subunits, is nothing but atoms-bonded-together, but their interactions generate something else – the emergence of distinctive molecular shapes that allow the cycle to run and the capsid to assemble.”

                                        “In addition to these shape-based emergent properties, the autogen also displays what are called emergent dynamics. Autocatalysis and capsid assembly are dynamic in that they are causally connected over time — one thing leads to the next to the next. In these cases, the molecular shapes serve as the nothing-buts. It is the dynamics – the operation of the cycle, the construction of the capsid — that are emergent.”

                                        “Autogens and subsequent lifeforms are not just any chemistry. They are highly constrained chemistry, chemistry restricted to the regenerative interactions that keep them alive. The law of entropy describes what happens in the absence of constraint – a drift into random homogeneity. In lifeforms, constraints are generated by favored shape-shape and catalyzed interactions that progressively reduce possible alternatives and hence render some paths increasingly probable. By constraining material interactions via emergent dynamics, lifeforms generate both order and potential novelty.”

                                        You are claiming emergence is real. Like swim bladders. A way I think of it is like the chair I am sitting in, which is actually a quantum mechanical cloud of electrodynamical forces. Or like a cube of ice. You can pick them up and hold them.

                                        My point goes deeper:

                                        What is meant by “real”?

                                        I am not denying that emergent properties such as ice, such as a swim bladder are real. We both agree on that. What I am getting at is the nature of reality. To get technical, I am a substance monist, like most naturalists are (it’s in the name), but I am a property dualist.


                                        To reduce things to real objects, like this description of an autogen as emergent in effect ignores the importance of information and the existence of abstract objects – ideas, if you will.

                                        Where do ideas come from? What is their nature?

                                        My published work in this field is entitled “Causally Active Metaphysical Realism”. I am making the case that ideas are not an epiphenomenon that is kind of an illusion that comes out of reality and is contingent on it. Instead, I am saying that ideas help cause reality down to the Quantum Mechanical level.

                                        In this view of reality, emergence is real, but it is a way of thinking about the world. This is a form of reality just as real as a water molecule is. Actually, it is at the same level, since a water molecule is an abstract idea too. What is does is make the distinction between reality and your conception of reality.

                                        I would suggest you read my Medium essay that summarizes this:


                                        “Hylomorphic Functions: Is Consciousness Quantized?”

                                        Then you can see why I am making the case that emergence is very real but it is real on the conceptual level. It is the adjective (the concept) that modifies the noun reality (the real world).

                                        Once we both understand where we are coming from, then we can have a useful discussion.

                                        The reason I am making this distinction is this: I want to get away from a reductive materialism, as do you. This is important in Religious Naturalism, otherwise all we have is a bare Naturalism. But I do not think it is helpful to postulate emergent objects as if they exist in reality. That still leaves us with a bare materialism. It does not account for ideas. Considering emergence as being part of the conceptual basis of reality leads to a better functioning and more realistic concept of reality.

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