Emergence (1)

Emergence is an interesting phenomenon that pervades all of existence, one that is often discussed by scientists, by philosophers, and humanists. But despite its ubiquity, I do not believe I have ever seen the idea of emergence brought up as an important issue in the nexus between science and faith. Perhaps it should be. Let’s explore.

We can define emergence as the appearance of a behavior or phenomenon at the system level that is not implicit in the properties of the system’s components. Emergence happens when a system of relatively simple elements reaches a level of complexity such that it suddenly takes on a higher-level quality, not predictable from its simple elements.

It sounds a bit magical, but it isn’t. It is a fundamental property of our universe. Emergence has a completely naturalistic presence in many branches of science. Here are a variety of journal article titles from the mainstream peer-reviewed literature, showing beyond any doubt that emergence is not some kind of “woo” factor with no scientific standing:

“Phenotypic and dynamical transitions in model genetic networks I. Emergence of patterns and genotype-phenotype relationships”

“Human evolution, niche complexity, and the emergence of a distinctively human imagination”

“Dehydrins: emergence of a biochemical role of a family of plant dehydration proteins”

“Emergence in Chemistry: Chemistry as the Embodiment of Emergence”

And here are a couple of book titles: Emergence: From chaos to order and Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.

One can find emergence in human games, in the functioning of neural networks and in the origin of life. Emergence is a basic characteristic of all the sciences: it happens in physics, chemistry and biology, in psychology and economics, in social sciences and outside the boundaries of science altogether.

Cosmologists write of the emergence of forces from other forces at the origin of the universe. This was the case with the emergence of the EM force from the weak force during that very eventful first instant after the big bang. Biology is actually an emergent property of chemistry at its most complex state. And consciousness is an emergent property of extremely complex neural organs.

So, having defined what emergence is, and demonstrated that it is a purely natural phenomenon, accepted in all the sciences, we are left with an obvious question – how does it happen? Or even more interestingly, why does it happen?

Let’s take a classical example of emergence –  a colony of ants. Individual ants are not very impressive. They are programmed to follow a simple set of rules related to following pheromones emitted by other ants. But when a million or so ants are together, they form a colony that exhibits amazing degrees of complexity. The colony is able to find and collect food, protect the queen, build structures, care for young, and so on. E. O. Wilson studied ant colonies for years and saw in them a model for many kinds of self-organizing complex systems, including human societies.

Or consider a game of chess. With a few pieces and a handful rules, we have a game with unending complexity and difficulty. Some chess games have been compared to majestic works of art, masterpieces of creativity and human brilliance.

What would the universe be like if emergence never happened – if the effects of increasing the complexity of interactions of a system simply resulted in a system that’s larger but predictable based on the properties of the simple components? In other words, suppose the ant colony, even with each ant interacting with nearby ants, simply appeared to be a jumble of ants running around looking for their own food. Perhaps their interactions would be helpful for that, but we wouldn’t see the construction of tunnels, or the group efforts in building food storage. Or suppose the outcome of a chess game between experts were  predictable after three moves. Imagine if the result of making a system of complex chemical interactions resulting in a disorganized jumble of chemical reactions with no particularly interesting or novel properties?

It isn’t hard to imagine that at all, because that is exactly what happens most of the time. If we simply mixed together a random set of chemicals, in most cases not much would occur, except for a few meaningless reactions. If we threw together a bunch of random insects of various unrelated species, they would simply run around searching for food. And we could invent a game with a number of pieces and a few rules that turned out to be boringly easy and dull to play. There are in fact a number of them on the market. So, emergence is actually a rare event. But it does happen. And when it does, it seems quite special and evokes a sense of wonder in us observers.

Not magic, but magical. Natural, yet in many cases just beyond our understanding. We seek in vain for that key ingredient that turns a flight of birds into a beautiful pattern of murmuration. Flocks of birds all flying together in the same direction are common, without the emergence of anything special. So, what happens when the flock is composed of just the exact minimum number of birds flying at just the right distance from each other, to suddenly transform into a sight of joy and beauty?

I have lots of questions in this post. Answers are welcome, and perhaps some thoughts about what any of this says about divine action in our world. To be continued, after the next post. The next post will be a guest post from loyal reader and commenter, Ethan Ortega.



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9 Responses to Emergence (1)

  1. resonate47 says:

    This is a topic that we could discuss at great length! Haha. I find emergence fascinating. And how much of it is contingent upon our perception, at least regarding things we see in nature that we construe as beautiful out of the mundane? As far as regards our minds and our personhood, I’m of the belief that it’s both a product of natural means and God’s design, that the emergence of our morality and consciousness is part of His plan to bring us into the image of the Divine. However, there is still so much mystery there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there always remains mystery. But I take comfort in believing that God brought out such beautiful things from such simple elements. The Imago Dei really is such a wonderful privilege, given by a God who desires communion with His creation. What are some of your thoughts on this?
    Also, I’m so thrilled to be contributing a guest post! I discovered your blog almost exactly one year ago, so the timing seems perfectly apt.

  2. I am in tune with pretty much everything you wrote here, Ethan. And I will be posting more about emergence. Yes, it is clearly part of how life started, and how humans got consciousness and their spiritual character. But I also think that its possible that the principle of emergence, of something new arising from a certain level of complexity, might be a fundamental quality of our universe that itself might be of divine origin. I dont know of any overall general principle or laws that govern emergence, and each case appears to be different and special. And yet i think we can imagine a universe where none of that happens. Perhaps God is absent in such a universe, and it is the phenomenon of emergence that points most strongly to God’s presence in this one.

  3. Jon Garvey says:


    Great post. The ant example is a great help to thinking about emergence, and what I suppose to be its alternative (maybe one could call that “reduction”). Seen emergently, the complexity of ant society “emerges” from simple components, as if by chance.

    But whether seen in creational or evolutionary terms, what was actually brought into being was the totality of the ant “world”, which could be viewed as being then (conceptually speaking) “reduced” into the simple subdivisions of the individual workers. Which way round one sees it depends on ones theory, rather than the phenomenon.

    So in human matters, nobody would see a jigsaw puzzle as being “emergent” from simpler pieces, except as a matter of the practicalities of solving the thing without looking at the box. The first conception was the picture, and the simpler components “emerge” from that. And similarly, assembly lines do not emerge from semi-skilled workers, but the latter are harnessed for the sake of the existing goal.

    Likewise, I suppose, in the case of something like a house, the simplicity of whose bricks belie the complexity of the result, although the analogy fails in that case since bricks, unlike chemical monomers or ants, have no capacity to self-assemble into an organised result. If they did, though, one might still gain a better understanding of “self-assembling bricks” as a design for a house which cleverly developed simple components, than as a design of a simple component that turned out to have the surprising capacity to turn into houses.

    In other words, overall emergence may be better seen as a classic indicator of teleology than as an alternative to it. And if so, it leaves the matter of complexity no less complex: one needs to explain both the cleverness of the simple components and the cleverness of the organised total in either case.

  4. Jon, yes, I like that. Especially ” emergence may be better seen as a classic indicator of teleology than as an alternative to it.” As you know, I am somewhat fixated on teleology at the moment (a pretty long lasting moment, actually). I do intend to follow up with another post on the subject of emergence. Some militant atheists are fond of saying that our universe is exactly the way we would predict it to be if there were no God. I have long doubted that to be true, and I wonder whether some aspects of emergence might be used as evidence to reinforce my doubt. More on that later.

  5. NoahWhite says:

    Great post, Sy. Emergence has fascinated me since it was brought to my attention (by you or Jon, I think) the bizarre nature of water’s properties. Can’t wait to read what else you’ve got coming on the topic, as well as Ethan’s post. Mine’s in the works still, apologies for the delay–school has been hectic and I’ve spent the weekend driving all around Texas (Houston to Amarillo to Lubbock and back!) picking up a new bloodhound pup for my parents so writing time has been hard to come by.

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