What is emergence and how do we use it?


Sorry, I meant saltiness, my bad

Yeah, it is an emergent property because the constituent parts do not possess that property.

But I don’t think that’s how salt works. Saltiness is a property of salt. I don’t see how that is emergence. Otherwise every chemical would be an example of emergence, and I’m pretty sure that’s not how people use it.

There are many ways “emergence” is used, and this is one way it is used. The problem is that these ways of using “emergence” are not interchangeable.

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@swamidass, I’ll definitely defer to you. What definitions are you aware of? What definition would you use?

The problem I’m having is that salt is not just sodium and chlorine atoms floating around. Salt shouldn’t have the properties of sodium and chlorine, so the fact that salt is salty but sodium atoms and chlorine atoms are not salty is not surprising.

This is like saying “cakiness” is an emergent property of eggs, oil, and flour. I don’t think that’s quite right. Cakiness is a property of cake, which is transformed from eggs, oil, and flour, but is not simply a homogeneous mixture of the components. We can’t just “unstir” the cake to get our eggs, oil, and flour back, they are a new thing. I would think of emergence as taking oil, eggs, and flour, and keeping them as oil, eggs, and flour, and then having some new property not belonging to any of them emerge. Am I thinking of it wrong?

It just seems to me that if all of chemistry is an emergent phenomena, then it loses much of any significance.

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I understand that there are several different types, and that it is an open area of inquiry in philosophy of science to just enumerate them all. For a high level primer, take a look at:

And this article is not so bad either:


The point is that emergence is a real thing, and it is complex in that there are many types of it. We do not know if minds are emergent from matter, or if more than just matter is needed.

OK, I briefly went through those articles. There are indeed a lot of different ways of looking at emergence. My own exposure to the idea was through my biology colleagues. I can see how chemical reactions, under some definitions, would be emergent. I think that tends to make the idea of emergence less interesting or powerful, since emergent phenomena would be, quite literally, everywhere.

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That is the point though. We see emergence everywhere, so it’s not unreasonable to posit that the mind emerges from our brains.

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Well, but to me that seems like using one definition of emergence to argue for an example of a different kind. I’m having a hard time seeing how a chemical reaction as “emergent” has anything to do with mind, I guess that’s what I’m not seeing.


The syllogism could look somewhat like this.

We don’t know precisely how the mind arises from a brain. But we don’t know precisely how alot of emergent things arise from lower level descriptions, yet they still do. So our inability to explain how the mind arises from a brain doesn’t undermine the proposition that it does.

OK, but my whole academic discipline is about understanding how chemical reactions work. It’s not a huge mystery. That’s why that version of emergence doesn’t seem appropriate.

We know why salt is different than sodium and chlorine atoms, but according to the "not the sum of the parts’ definition of emergence, salt is emergent. That seems totally different than arguments for mind as emergent.


No one is saying that emergent features are inscrutable. We should study them to understand how lower level descriptions mechanistically give rise to them. We do. In some cases we understand quite a bit.

The general rule is that the whole can be quite different then the naive sum of its parts.

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I think I’m more with Jordan on this one. To be a useful construct, I would think that emergent features should not just be different, but require a new order of description.

For instance, salt is different from its constituents, but still can be completely described in terms which describe sodium and chlorine, eg molecular weight, chemical potential energy, polarity, and so forth. Much of metabolism is just a complicated chemistry. I would say that heredity though, even though is is based on chemistry, is emergent. It introduces a new dimension which cannot be entirely reduced to chemistry because fitness comes into play and selects beyond merely chemical determinants.

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This agrees with my point about emergence: it is a deterministic phenomenon that arises from the outworking of the laws of physics. Which means ‘emergence’ is not an escape route to provide the possibility of free will coming from a collection of parts which are not, themselves, free. Free will can only be a supernatural phenomenon, which in turn means that consciousness, which is built upon freedom of thought, cannot be a product of unthinking matter alone.

I think I agree with your conclusion more than the premises.

You seem to be arguing for physical determinism so that you can have supernaturally-dependent consciousness. It’s an interesting argument.

I’m trying to understand “emergence” itself a little bit more so I’m going to poke at that and leave the consciousness argument for the other thread.

I think a problem I have is that I don’t know how to distinguish between a truly emergent phenomena and one that I just have incomplete knowledge of. I’ll take the shape of a snowflake as an example. Nobody can predict the precise shape of a snowflake. We know they are six-sided, we know they tend to form fractal-looking arms. We know the physical and chemical reasons behind all of that. Yet the fact remains, we can’t take a snapshot of the atmosphere and predict what the shape of every snowflake will be before it hits the ground. Can we tell the different between emergence and incomplete knowledge? I don’t see that question being easy to answer.

I presume that God knows the shape of each snowflake before it hits the ground. However, I don’t know if that’s because he’s outside time and sees the snowflake on the ground “now” or if he just has a much more complete knowledge of the variables than we do so his “prediction” always right.

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I think my argument was centering on ‘properties’ more so than ‘phenomena’. Being somehow not dependent upon physical laws for your behavior would be a ‘property’, and some are claiming it is an emergent property which can be explained by nature. I don’t think that would be possible.

Why? Just curious. I think I’d probably agree with you, I’m just not sure I have a good reason other than I feel like we do have some level of free will.

I don’t think you can put together an assemblage of things which all, individually, are beholden to deterministically following the laws of nature, and yet get a whole assemblage that itself does not have to follow the laws of nature.

That just seems surprisingly grounded in the constancy and universal applicability of physical laws for someone who is a YEC.

[Edit: sorry, that may have seemed more antagonistic than I meant it to be. I was just saying that a great many YEC arguments about radiometric dating, etc. center on the inconsistency of physical laws, so this seemed a little surprising as an argument.]