A PHILOSOPHICAL LEXICON FOR CONCEPTUAL ANALYSIS, #8: Two Concepts of Emergence–One Genuine & One Phony.

Mr Nemo
17 min readNov 30, 2020

By Robert Hanna

“Young Woman With a Book [Reading Philosophy],” by Alexander Deineka (1934)
“A Philosopher Reading” (Wellcome Collection)

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APP Editor’s Note:

You can download or read a complete .pdf of the basic working draft of this philosophical lexicon HERE.

But since it is a work-in-progress, this does not preclude ongoing elaborations or revisions of the working draft, that appear only in the online installments.

After the series is finished, then a complete revised-and-updated version of the basic working draft will be made available for universal sharing.

Here are four preliminary remarks about the lexicon.

First, all terms in boldface have a definition or explication somewhere on the list.

Second, all of these definitions are, to some extent, controversial, precisely because they imply a certain philosophical point of view, or set of presuppositions, that not all philosophers share.

Third, entries marked with an asterisk* indicate a particularly controversial definition, and also include a brief description of the controversy, in italics.

Fourth, some entries also include a philosopher’s name in parenthesis, if that definition is closely historically associated with a formulation that was original to that philosopher.

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PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS IN THIS SERIES:

#7: “Democracy.”

#6: “Animal.”

#5: “Anarchism” (A Philosophical and Sociopolitical Tribute to David Graeber).

#4: “Analysis.”

#3: “Acts.”

#2: “Abstract.”

#1: Introduction, & Other Preliminaries.

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Emergence*: the process whereby a categorically simpler (less complex, more superficial) old structure or system S1 evolves — opens up and unfolds — into a categorically richer (more complex, deeper-rooted) new structure or system S2, such that S2 makes explicit what was previously only implicit in S1.

For example, human social institutions emerge from human mindedness; human mindedness emerges from complex organismic life; complex organismic life emerges from unicellular organismic life; and unicellular organismic life emerges from non-equilibrium thermodynamic energy flows exemplifying classical quantum properties or states such as the particle/wave duality, complementarity, entanglement, and non-locality.

Controversy: This definition of emergence — in terms of processes whereby structures or systems evolve from older, simpler, less complex and more superficial global properties or states, into essentially newer, more complex, and deeper-rooted global properties or states of that structure or system, thereby making explicit what was previously only implicit in the earlier states — is sharply distinct from standard definitions of emergence in terms of a synchronic and time-reversible strong supervenience relation between qualitative or relational properties or states of parts, and distinct qualitative or relational global properties or states of wholes. Indeed, if I’m correct about this, then the former kind of emergence is metaphysically genuine emergence, and the latter kind of emergence is merely a metaphysically phony emergence, i.e., nothing but a metaphysical myth.

ELABORATION

For clarity’s sake, and in order for what follows to make sense to readers who don’t closely follow the (to be frank, highly Scholastic, and often trivial) debates in recent or contemporary Analytic metaphysics, I’ll define a metaphysical relation called strong supervenience.

Strong supervenience[i] is a necessary determination-relation between sets of properties or states of different ontological “levels,” a relation that is weaker than strict property/state-identity, and is usually taken to be asymmetric, although two-way or bilateral supervenience is also possible.

But assuming for the purposes of simpler exposition that strong supervenience is asymmetric, then, more precisely, B-properties/states (= the higher level properties/states) strongly supervene on A-properties/states (= the lower-level properties/states) if and only if

(i) for any property/state F among the A-properties/states had by something X, F necessitates X’s also having property/state G among the B-properties/states (upwards necessitation), and

(ii) there cannot be a change in any of X’s B-properties/states without a corresponding change in X’s A-properties/states (necessary co-variation).

It follows from strong supervenience that any two things X and Y share all their A-properties/states in common only if they share all their B-properties/states in common (indiscriminability).

In turn, logical supervenience is a super-strong version of strong supervenience which says that the necessitation relations between the B-properties/states and the A-properties/states are logical and a priori.

Or more simply put: The B-properties/states are “nothing more than” and “nothing over and above” the A-properties/states.

If logical supervenience holds, then if there were such a being as an all-powerful and all-knowing creator God, and if They were to create and/or know all the A-properties/states, then They would have nothing more to do in order to create and/or know all the B-properties/states.

By contrast to logical supervenience, nomological or natural strong supervenience is a modally weaker notion which says that the the necessitation relations between the B-properties/states and the A-properties/states are determined by laws of nature, and hold in all and only the worlds in which those natural laws obtain.

It is crucial to recognize that no matter what its level of modal strength, strong supervenience specifies at best a set of extrinsic modal properties and relations (namely, upwards necessitation, necessary co-variation, and indiscriminability) between a thing’s A-properties/states and its B-properties/states, or between any two things’ A-properties/states and B-properties/states.

If relations of strong supervenience hold for a thing or things, as such, then there is no further implication that these are relations of constitution, essence, or efficacious causal power, such that a thing’s or things’ immanent structural characteristics — and in particular, if the thing or things are natural or physical, their efficacious causal powers — depend on these relations.

Conversely, if relations of constitution, essence, or causal efficacy hold for a thing or things, then there is no further implication that strong supervenience holds for them.

In short, the metaphysics of strong supervenience is modally shallow, not modally deep, unlike the real metaphysics of constitution, essence, or causality.[ii]

Correspondingly, as Jaegwon Kim repeatedly pointed out,[iii] the fundamental metaphysical flaw in the notion of strong supervenience is that, given the modal shallowness of the strong supervenience relation, the possession of a set of efficacious causal powers by the supervenience base inherently rules out and undermines — excludes — the transmission of those efficacious powers to the supervening properties/states, thereby rendering the supervening properties/states epiphenomenal and causally inert: hence this is known as The Causal Exclusion Problem.

Now back to emergence.

The concept of emergence has its historical source in early 20th century debates about scientific reductionism, and in particular the mechanism vs. vitalism controversy in the philosophy of biology.[iv]

Eventually, that controversy withered away — no doubt because by the end of the 1950s, scientific naturalism (including the sub-doctrines of scientism, natural mechanism, and reductive materialism or physicalism), was the conventional wisdom in mainstream Analytic philosophy.[v]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s however, the concept of emergence (as it were) re-emerged in the context of the mind-body problem and more specifically in the context of the problem of mental causation.[vi]

Very simply put, the general thesis of emergence says that irreducibly new global properties or states of a formal or natural system can come out of old properties or states of that formal or natural system.

In other and even fewer words, emergence is formal or natural creativity.

For the time being, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s concentrate on emergence as it applies to natural systems, all of which are dynamic systems in space and time.

Later, I’ll briefly come back to emergence as it applies to formal systems — which I’ll call constructive emergence — in order to present an illuminating analogy with its application to dynamic systems.

In any case, it should be immediately noticed, however, that the contrast between the newness versus the oldness of the properties of a natural system is ambiguous as between whether it should be understood as the contrast between, on the one hand, (a) the less ontologically basic properties or states of a natural system vs. the more ontologically basic properties or states of that system (for example, the system’s temperature vs. its mean molecular motion, or the system’s being water vs. its being H2O), or whether on the other hand it should be understood as the contrast between (b) those properties or states of a natural system whose instances exist earlier in time vs. those properties or states of that system whose instances exist only later in time (for example, the system’s being a build-up of towering cumulus clouds vs. its later being a thunderstorm, or the system’s acorn-ness vs. its later oak tree-ness).

Correspondingly, the notion of coming out of is ambiguous as to whether it should be understood as, on the one hand, (a∗) the simultaneous strong supervenience of various global properties or states of the natural system on the non-relational or relational properties of its local proper parts (for example, the strong supervenience of the system’s temperature at any given time on its mean molecular motion at that same time, or the strong supervenience of the system’s being water on its being H2O), or whether on the other hand it should be understood as (b∗) the evolution of various global properties or states of the system only over time (e.g., the growth of a thunderstorm out of a build-up of towering cumulus clouds, or the growth of an oak tree out of an acorn).

Noting these conceptual ambiguities is extremely important, because the pair consisting of (a) and (b), and the pair consisting of (a∗) and (b∗), while they may seem superficially consistent with each other, are in fact inconsistent.

This becomes clearer when we formulate the notions corresponding to each pair more explicitly.

The conceptual pair consisting of (a) and (a∗) is what I’ll call essentially synchronic and supervenient emergence, aka static emergence, aka phony emergence, and the conceptual pair consisting of (b) and (b∗) is what I’ll call essentially diachronic and non-supervenient emergence, aka dynamic emergence, aka genuine emergence.

The paradigm of essentially synchronic and supervenient emergence, aka static emergence, aka phony emergence, is what Kim aptly called mereological supervenience,[vii] whereby the global properties of a system, supposedly, locally strongly supervene on its compositional atoms; whereas the paradigm of essentially diachronic and non-supervenient emergence, aka dynamic emergence, aka genuine emergence, is natural growth.

Essentially Synchronic and Supervenient Emergence, aka Static Emergence, aka Phony Emergence

A natural system (supposedly[viii]) has essentially synchronic emergent properties or states if and only if new properties or states of that system come out of old properties or states of that system such that

(i) necessarily, the new properties or states of that system occur at a less ontologically basic level than the old properties or states (for example, the system’s temperature vs. its mean molecular motion), and

(ii) necessarily, the new properties are global properties of the system that simultaneously locally strongly supervene on the non-relational or relational properties of its local proper parts (for example, the local strong supervenience of the system’s temperature at any given time on its mean molecular motion at that same time, or the local strong supervenience of the system’s being water at any given time on its being H2O at that same time).

More generally then, the doctrine of static emergence says four things.

First, nature contains physical wholes, or systems, whose local proper parts relationally interact over time in a way that yields novel global properties of these systems.

Second, these novel global properties cannot be predicted from scientific knowledge of the proper parts alone.

Third, nevertheless these novel global properties do locally strongly supervene on the local intrinsic, non-relational fundamental physical properties of their proper parts, together with the extrinsic relational properties of those proper parts, and are not identical with any of those properties.

Fourth, this local strong supervenience is only accidentally diachronic, and time-reversible (symmetrical with respect to its temporal direction), hence essentially synchronic.

Essentially Diachronic and Non-Supervenient Emergence, aka Dynamic Emergence, aka Genuine Emergence

A natural system has essentially diachronically emergent properties or states if and only if new properties of that system come out of old properties of that system such that

(i) necessarily, the new properties or states of that system are instantiated later than its old properties and do not exist in that system at any time prior to the existence of its old properties or states (for example, the system exemplifies being a thunderstorm later than it exemplifies being a build-up of towering cumulus clouds, and can never exemplify being a thunderstorm before it has exemplified being a build-up of towering cumulus clouds; or the system exemplifies oak tree-ness later than it exemplifies acornness, and can never exemplify oak-treeness before it has exemplified acorn-ness), and

(ii) necessarily, the new properties or states of the system evolve from older, simpler, less complex, and more superficial causally efficacious global properties or states, into essentially newer, more complex, and deeper-rooted causally efficacious global properties or states of that structure or system, by means of various causal interactions between the structure or system and its environment over thermodynamically irreversible time, thereby making explicit what was previously only implicit in the earlier properties or states (for example, the growth of a thunderstorm out of a build-up of towering cumulus clouds, or the growth of an oak tree out of an acorn).

More generally then, the doctrine of dynamic emergence says four things.

First, nature contains physical processes, or systems, namely self-organizing thermodynamic systems, whose new properties or states evolve from older, simpler, less complex and more superficial causally efficacious global properties or states of that system, into essentially newer, more complex, and deeper-rooted causally efficacious global properties or states of that system, by means of various causal interactions between the system and its environment over thermodynamically irreversible time, thereby making explicit what was previously only implicit in the earlier properties or states.

Second, the novel and causally efficacious global properties or states of such systems cannot be predicted from scientific knowledge of the proper parts alone.

Third, these novel and causally efficacious global properties or states do not locally strongly supervene on the local intrinsic non-relational fundamental physical properties of all their proper parts, together with the extrinsic relational properties of those proper parts, and are not identical with any of those properties, nor do they globally strongly supervene on fundamental physical properties.

Fourth and finally, dynamic emergence is time-irreversible (asymmetrical with respect to its temporal direction), hence essentially diachronic.

Everyday examples of essentially diachronic and non-supervenient dynamic emergence include the non-organismic growth of thunderstorms out of build-ups of towering cumulus clouds, and the organismic growth of oak trees out of acorns.

But there is also strong evidence for essentially diachronic and non-supervenient dynamic emergence from entangled quantum systems and quantum field theory.[ix]

In entangled quantum systems, the newly resulting compound determines the original constituents (particles) rather than the other way around, as mereological supervenience would suggest.

Quantum field theory strongly indicates that there is no ultimate level of ‘‘really real’’particles on which everything else is strongly supervenient.[x]

Rather, quantum fields are patterns of process over time that exist in many different types of complexity.

The phenomenon of spontaneous symmetry breaking[xi] likewise points to dynamic emergence.

And there is also David Bohm’s idea of quantum potential,[xii] a pilot-wave guiding the behavior of the particle.

Therefore the Standard Model of Particle Physics, our best current physical theory of the fundamental properties of matter, on at least some interpretations of it, strongly confirms the existence of dynamic emergence.

So, the basic metaphysical claim I am making here is that human social institutions, human mindedness, complex organismic life, and unicellular organismic life, all non-superveniently and causally efficaciously emerge in far-from-equilibrium, spatiotemporally asymmetric, complex, self-organizing thermodynamic systems, hence they are rightly regarded as paradigm examples of genuine emergence.

And leaving aside the jargon of contemporary Analytic metaphysics now, my basic point is just this: human social institutions, human mindedness, complex organismic life, and unicellular organismic life, all arise in nature as temporally novel, immanent structural properties or states of natural processes possessing a certain suitable level of thermodynamic complexity.

As immanent-structural, such features do not metaphysically pop out of these natural processes, at all, but even more specifically they do not metaphysically pop out at-a-time, or synchronically, since the thermodynamics of the processes themselves, in asymmetric time, is inherently and internally guided and self-determined by these very same structural features: on the contrary, they evolve.

By this, I mean that one less complex state of far-from-equilibrium, spatiotemporally asymmetric, and complex, but still non-self-organizing or non-living thermodynamics (for example, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction, with or without a catalyst and light-excitation[xiii]) dynamically opens up and unfolds into another, essentially richer thermodynamic structure (for example, that of unicellular organismic life), just as the less complex system of the rational numbers constructively opens up and unfolds into the essentially richer system of the real numbers by means of, for example, Cantorian diagonalization, the power-set operation, or the Dedekind-cut operation; and constructive emergence in formal systems is also manifest when we move from the natural or whole numbers to the rational numbers, from sentential logic to classical predicate logic, from classical predicate logic to Principia Mathematica-style mathematical logic,[xiv] or from classical logic to non-classical logic.[xv]

“Opening up and unfolding into” is of course a metaphor.

Nevertheless, I think that by means of an evocative image, it accurately conveys the core idea that the dynamic emergence is essentially inside the asymmetric spatiotemporal processes constituting its non-equilibrium thermodynamics, just as the real numbers are essentially between the rational numbers, and the rational numbers are essentially between the natural and whole numbers.

Dynamic emergence, aka genuine emergence, then, is the spatiotemporally asymmetric self-revelation of, opening-and-unfolding-into, actualization of, or rendering explicit, a previously merely implicit and potential essentially richer thermodynamic structure, with correspondingly new efficacious causal powers.

Confusing static emergence, aka phony emergence, with dynamic emergence, aka genuine emergence, is a paradigmatic example of what A.N. Whitehead aptly called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: mistaking the abstract for the concrete.[xvi]

But in this case, it is also a paradigmatic example of mistaking a metaphysical myth for what is metaphysically real.

Finally, it is crucial to notice that just as the adequate methods for explaining or knowing constructively emergent facts or results in the formal sciences aren’t either computable or decidable algorithms/recursive functions or even logical proofs in Principia-Mathematica-style systems plus the basic Peano axioms for arithmetic — for example, Cantorian diagonalization and the power set operation, Dedekind cuts, etc. — so too the adequate methods for explaining or knowing dynamically emergent facts or results in the natural sciences aren’t computable or decidable algorithms/recursive functions, logical proofs, or even calculative predictions of deterministic/ indeterministic sequences based on non-statistical or statistical natural laws: for example, quantum superposition, quantum complementarity, quantum entanglement, quantum non-locality, facts or results in organismic biology, facts or results in medicine including psychiatry, facts or results in cognitive psychology, facts or results about free agency, and facts or results about human social institutions.

In other and fewer words, explaining or knowing constructive emergence in formal systems, and dynamic emergence in dynamic systems, requires methods that are themselves explanatorily irreducible to and underdetermined by merely mechanical or purely logical methods of any kind.

Or in still other and even fewer words, in order to explain or know formally or naturally creative facts or results, creative modes of explanation or knowing are required.

A paradigmatic example of these creative modes of explanation or knowing in constructive emergence is Gödel’s use of Gödel-numbering, Cantorian diagonalization, and the Liar Paradox in the demonstration of his two incompleteness theorems.[xvii]

And three paradigmatic examples of creative modes of explanation or knowing in dynamic emergence are (i) Bohm’s appeal to non-local hidden variables as “beables” for pilot waves guiding particle-behavior in the evolution of the wave-function, in his reconstruction of the Two Slit Experiment and other double-path phenomena,[xviii] (ii) the biologist’s non-inferential cognitive ability to reliably recognize the difference between non-living systems and living systems,[xix] and (iii) any rational human animal free agent’s ability to reliably predict their own actions by means of trying to do them.[xx]

NOTES

[i] See, for example, J. Kim, Supervenience and Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), esp. part 1; T. Horgan, “From Supervenience to Superdupervenience: Meeting the Demands of a Material World,” Mind 102 (1993): 555–586; and D. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), chs. 1–3.

[ii] See R. Hanna, “Kant, the Copernican Devolution, and Real Metaphysics,” in M. Altman (ed.), Kant Handbook (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 761–789.

[iii] See, e.g., Kim, Supervenience and Mind.

[iv] See A. Stephan, “Emergence: A Systematic View of its Historical Facets,’’’ in A. Beckermann et al. (eds), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1992), pp. 25–47; and B. McLaughlin, ‘‘The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,’’ in Beckermann et al. (eds.), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism, pp. 49–93.

[v] See, e.g., R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future,” Cosmos & History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/865/1510>.

[vi] See, e.g., Beckermann et al., (eds.), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism; and T. O’Connor, “Emergent Properties,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/properties-emergent/>.

[vii] See J. Kim, ‘‘Multiple Realizability and the Metaphysics of Reduction,’’ in Kim, Supervenience and Mind, pp. 309–335.

[viii] Remember, I’m arguing for the idea that static emergence is nothing but a metaphysical myth; hence I don’t want to be taken even to imply that I think that there really is such a thing.

[ix] M. Silberstein and J. McGeever, ‘‘The Search For Ontological Emergence,’’ Philosophical Quarterly 49 (1999): 182–200; and H. Stapp, Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics (Munich: Springer, 1993).

[x] M. Bickhard and D. Campbell, ‘‘Emergence,’’ in P.B. Anderson et al. (eds.), Downward Causation (Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2000), pp. 322–348, at p. 331.

[xi] See, e.g., K. Brading, E. Castellani, and N. Teh, “Symmetry and Symmetry Breaking,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/symmetry-breaking/>.

[xii] See, e.g., G. Bruntrup, ‘‘Is Psycho-Physical Emergentism Committed to Dualism? The Causal Efficacy of Emergent Mental Properties,’’ Erkenntnis 48 (1998): 133–151, at p. 147.

[xiii] See, e.g., I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (New York: The Free Press, 1997), pp. 66–67; and Wikipedia, “The Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belousov%E2%80%93Zhabotinsky_reaction>. The Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction can be excited into self-organizing activity by means of the influence of light, using tris(bipyridine)ruthenium(II) chloride as a catalyst. But even this still falls short of organismic life.

[xiv] Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems — whose proof deploys Gödel-numbering, Cantorian diagonalization, and the Liar Paradox — show that this is a radical step, essentially analogous to the constructive emergence of the real numbers from the rational numbers. See K. Gödel, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems,” in J. Van Heijenoort (ed.), From Frege to Gödel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967, pp. 596–617, also available online HERE.

[xv] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), esp. ch. 2.

[xvi] A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 51.

[xvii] Gödel, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.”

[xviii] See, e.g., S. Goldstein, “Bohmian Mechanics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/qm-bohm/>.

[xix] See, e.g., J. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J.S. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature: A Convergence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020), ch. 20, pp. 206–246.

[xx] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Will-Power: Essentially Embodied Agentive Phenomenology, By Way of O’Shaughnessy,” in C. Erhard and T. Keiling (eds.), Routledge Handbook: The Phenomenology of Agency (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 312–333, also available online in preview HERE.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.