Sunday, January 18, 2009

Emergence 1: Fundamentals

I've been promising a series on emergence--the science behind it and what it potentially means for human civilization and spirituality--for some time.  I wrote two posts on the topic (and promised to post them) but later decided that I needed to first improve my own understanding of this topic before offering any thoughts or conclusions to a broader audience.  I'm now well in to that process (at the result of understanding now, more than ever, just how much about emergence remains unknown).  With two caveats, I'm beginning my series on emergence--a topic that I think is central to the ongoing evolution of economics, politics, science, spirituality, and my own theory of Rhizome.  The first caveat is that I continue to read and think about emergence--this series is by no means a simple presentation of ultimate conclusions.  It is the chronicle of my process of learning about emergence, and my thoughts on the topic along the way.  The second caveat is that, while I continue to work to publish a new post every Monday morning, I'm not optimistic about my ability to keep precisely to that schedule over the next few weeks.  I have an 8-day jury trial starting March 1st.  My preparation will be fairly intense--I'll be taking or defending three all-day expert depositions over the next 8 days alone--and at some point this writing will have to take a back seat.

That said, what's the big deal about emergence, anyway?  The scientific community is primarily interested in emergence as a phenomenon present in psychology--specifically the study of human consciousness.  Consciousness, along with developmental microbiology, occupy in my mind the top tier of the pantheon of great unknowns (I think theological unknowns will be largely answered if and when we fully understand these two sets of phenomena).  As will become more clear after discussing the fundamentals of emergence, however, it is my hypothesis that human political and economic organization may be linked to the same set of macro-rules that govern both consciousness and developmental microbiology--something that I think could be a great accelerant to my theory of Rhizome, though not necessarily an essential element.  That's why, aside from general intellectual curiosity about the "great unknowns," I think a discussion of emergence is relevant here.

British Emergentism and Configurational Forces

Where else to start but the beginning?  While I (borrowing from others) have in the past suggested that emergence was a new field, it is anything but.  It certainly stems back as far as Aristotle, though it has been part of the mainstream intellectual discourse since at least the late Nineteenth Century in a school called "British Emergentism."  The British Emergentists hypothesized the notion of "configurational force," which is "that of a force that can be exerted only by substances with certain types of structures, where the forces are such that they canno be exerted by any kinds of pairs of elementary particles."  The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism, Brian P. McLaughlin, at 1.4.  This theory basically suggested that effects then mysterious such as physical chemistry, atomic bonding, etc., were not the result of "micro-structural" forces (the characteristics of the individual atoms bonding, for example), but rather their structure.  Subsequent developments, especially in the field of quantum mechanics, pretty much took the wind out of the sails of the British Emergentists, but their several decades of prominence (roughly 1880-1930) laid much of the ontological groundwork for modern discussions of emergence.

What is Emergence?

It's often defined as the situation where a phnomenon is "unexplainable, or unpredictable, on the basis of information concerning the spatial parts or other constiutents of the system in which the phenomenon occurs." On the Idea of Emergence, C. Hempel and P. Oppenheim.  In other words, even if you know everything about the "micro-structure" of the components of a system, you cannot explain or predict observable phenomena (emergents) of that system.  Consciousness is  perfect example--given everything we know about neurology, chemistry, biology, etc., we still cannot predict or explain consciousness.  It is an emergent--a property of the system that emerges from the whole but that (at present) cannot be explained or predicted based on an understanding of its component parts.

Some have suggested that emergence is only a way of stating that we do not yet have sufficient understanding of the micro-structure of a system to predict the emergent phenomenon, and that this fact alone in no way proves that there is anything "emergent" about the as-of-yet unexplained phenomena--they merely represent an expression of our current limits of knowledge.  The demise of British Emergentism as a theory to explain certain aspects of chemistry supports this view--the improved understanding of micro-structure via quantum mechanics made once unexplained and unpredictable phenomena fully explained and predictable.  However, the fact that some emergent phenomena may be reducible to an improved microstructure theory does not prove that emergence is not also a stand-alone phenomenon.  "Emergence" of a characteristic is not an ontological trait of certain phenomena--all or some may be ultimately reducible--but it is a means of explaining what cannot currently be explained through reductionism. 

As unsatisfying as that admission may be, it has potentially critical ramifications:  if an "Emergent" (an irredudible phenomena that emerges from a broader system) is fundamentally unreducible, then several interesting results follow (discussed below).  If, however, a phenomena later proves to be reducible, then its ontological value is significantly changed.  Take consciousness, for example.  If consciousness is an emergent--that is, it can never be reduced to mere operation of component neurons, etc.--then that tells us something very significant about the human condition, both scientifically and theologically.  However, if we eventually learn that consciousness is fully explainable and predictable based on its micro-structure of neurons, then any discussion of "soul" or "individual" seem to end, at least in my mind.  If people have personalities for the same ultimate reason that leaves are green (i.e. in both cases, if the result is completely reducible to and explainable by the micro-structure), then there is nothing fundamentally unique about two people beyond that which is unique between two leaves.  If, however, consciousness is an emergent (unreducible to microstrucutre, unexplainable and unpredictable based on that microstructure), then we are left with significant mystery, but also significant understanding--specifically, that there is some part of humanity that, by definition, transcends our bodies.

Hierarchy and Emergence

It seems, however, that emergence informs far more than theology.  The identification of an emergent is not the end of the investigation--far from it.  First, an emergent cannot be "identified" any more than we can prove a negative--investigation into possible microstructural causes must continue as the ability to conduct those investigations improves.  However, an equally interesting any revealing question presents itself:  even if an emergent isn't explainable or predictable by the microstructure, can we understand what microstructures give rise to (or tend to give rise to) emergents?  One core idea of our modern understanding of emergence is that "as systems acquire increasingly higher degrees of organizational complexity they begin to exhibit novel properties that in some sense transcend the properties of their constituent parts, and behave in ways that cannot be predicted on the basis of the laws governing simple systms."  Making Sense of Emergence, Jaegwon Kim.

In other words:  as complexity increases, at some point emergent properties of the complex system seem to present themselves.  This process will be the focus of my discussion in later posts, but for now I want to pose a hypothesis:  some kinds of complexity are more conducive to generating emergence than others.  That sounds pretty simple, but consider the importance of a possible extension of this:  non-hierarchal (topologically "flat") complexity is more conducive to emergence than is hierarchal complexity.  I think there is support for this from one of the key examples of emergence listed above:  consciousness, which emerges (presumably) from the very non-hierarchal structure of our brains.  Compare this to the massive but hierarchal corporate structures in our economy which do not appear to exhibit emergence (and, conversely, the far less hierarchal global structure of human interactions which, may hypothesize, facilitates the emergence of the noosphere, or "global brain").  Can we foster, or guide emergence from human strucutres?  Is hierarchy an evolutionary mechanism to control (reduce/eliminate) emergence in human political or economic systems?  Why would it matter?  Specifically, what could be the effect of emergence that would make it relevant to the structure or functioning of our economic or political systems?

Emergents and Downward Causation

At the cutting edge, and among the more controversial parts of emergence theory, is the notion that "emergents bring into the world new causal powers of their own, and, in particular, theat they have the powers to influence and control the direction of the lower-level processes from which they emerge."  Making Sense of Emergence, Jaegwon Kim.  This notion of "downward causation" is critical.  If emergents cannot exercise downward causation, then the emergent is either (1) nothing more than an as-of-yet unexplained but reducible phenomenon, or (2) useless as an ontological formulation (because what does it do or tell us?).  As Jaegkown Kim asks, "For what purpose would it serve to insist on the existence of emergent properties if they were mere epiphenomena with no causal or explanatory relevance . . . [if emergence] supposes something to exist in nature which has nothing to do, no purpose to serve, a species of noblesse w hich depends on the work of its inferiors, but is kept for show and might as well, and undoubtedly would in time be abolished."

The controversy over downward causation seems to stem from the mental gymnastics demanded by a feature that emerges from itself while simultaneously influencing the sourced of its genesis--what some have suggested is an unacceptable circularity.  I don't have any problem in principle with this formulation, but proponents have also developed a modification of the theory of emegence that seems to satsify even the skepitics:  diachronic reflexive emergence, or emergence where the emergent at time T influences the micro-structure at T+1, which in turn results in possible modification of the emergent at T+2, etc.

Certainly, if one accepts consciousness to be an emergent, then the downward causation of consciousness (acting upon the physical body and brain structure) is clearly documented (this specific example matches the model of diachronic reflexive emergence mentioned above).

There you have it--a whirlwind tour of the fundamentals of emergence as both a philosophical and scientific doctrine.  We're just scratching the surface (though human understanding doesn't seem to go much deeper at this point).  To whet your appetite for future discussions:  can different human economic or political configurations exhibit different abilities to produce emergents, and can those emergents in turn exert downward causation on the operation of the underlying structure?  Can we structure our economic or political systems in a way that facilitates emergents--even emergents that then open the door to new functioning of the underlying political or economic system through the exercise of downward emergence?  Is this playing with fire?  (Or, perhaps more appropriately, playing god?)

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.

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Alan Post said...


My name is Alan Post. Would you have time to point out some references and books on emergence? I see you quote "Making Sense of Emergence," by Jaegwon Kim, which seems a good starting point, but if you had other resources you have used to help formulate your understanding of this topic, I'd love to look at them myself.

Alan Post said...

Yesterday I was watching a video presentation by Monica Anderson on "Bizarre Systems" that also talks about emergence.

Her thesis is that there are a class of problems that you can't solve by reducing to components, and these systems have a set of attributes, including emergence.

Watching the video helped to systematize my own understanding of complex systems.

The video is at

Gregory Wade said...

Seems like a rich vein of thought to mine! Have you read, Ernst Becker, Mr. Vail? He wrote a series of book, most notably "Denial of Death?" I would highly recommend him. When you talk about Hierarchy, I think of the section "Centralization of Ritual" in "Escape from Evil." When you talk about consciousness as emergent, I think about his discussion of our best understanding of the emergence of consciousness, and the process of individuation in "The Birth and Death of Meaning." Perhaps not, but I kept thinking about his work as I explored your thoughts. I look forward to following the series.

Jeff Vail said...


Thanks for the video link--will watch as soon as I have time. For reading, I'd recommend the collection of essays entitled "Emergence" (ed. by Bedau), which is available on Amazon. It includes the Jaegkwon Kim article cited above. You may also find Howard Bloom's "Global Brain" to be of interest, though it doesn't get very deep into emergence itself, but rather discusses on possible emergent. Also "Hidden Order" by John Holland, which approaches the issue from the ground up.


I haven't read Becker, but I'll add it to my (long and ever growing faster than I can read) list... thanks for the tip-

CRP said...


I dont know if you have already found this idea else where, but I think it would be very interesting to separate the idea of "Emergency" in several types.

* Strong Emergency - The idea that no even if our knowledge on the parts of the system is complete and flawless, we will never be able to explain at least one of the properties of that system.

* On-the-limits Emergency - Lets assume the parts of the system to be infinitely complex themselves, such that our knowledge of those will always be incomplete and/or less than perfect. On-the-limits Emergency would mean that there are properties on the system that cannot be explained even if our knowledge of the parts approach asymptotically to the (unreachable) absolute knowledge.

* Weak Emergency - Is the idea that properties of the system cannot be explained by our current knowledge of the parts, but could be if such knowledge is improved over time. I think it has a practical merit over the other two, more philosophical, ones; it provides a framework inside rational/scientific thinking to the events that we can observe but that are foolishly dismissed by our Western reductionism.

Best wishes

Jeff Vail said...


I like the idea of classifying emergence, but I wonder how we can ever classify something as strong vs. weak emergence? Stating that some phenomenon is "strong emergence" seems to imply that we know all that can be known about the microstructure, and are therefore in a position to make the determination that it's not our lack of knowledge of that microstructure that makes the emergent phenomenon unexplainable/unpredictable. I'm not sure we can ever make that statement? However, I can certainly see how it is a useful distinction in theory: there's something very different about something we hypothesize to be "strong emergence" compared to something we hypothesize to be "weak emergence," and that distinction seems valuable there...

Luís de Sousa said...

Hi Jeff, looking at the title of your post, I'd expect names such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, John van Neumann or Stephen Ulam to came up, but they didn't.

Emergence is a fairly objective concept in Computer Science. Cheers.

Jeff Vail said...

Hi Luis,

I think that "emergence" as discussed by Turing, Babbage, and others in the computer science field is a far more limited concept than what is the term is used in the modern philosophical and biological/psychological context. From the computer science context, I think that John Holland's work at the Santa Fe institute is really the cutting edge of emergence, but even his work demonstrates the key difference between discussions of emergence in computer science and philogosphy/biology: computer science focuses on the charateristics that give rise to emergent properties (because they're trying to replicate these phenomena); philosphy/biology looks at what it means to be an emergent phenomena (as opposed to merely a reducible but not-yet-understood phenomena) and why that is significant.

I will discuss Holland's approach and research in later discussions of how we can design economic and political networks to foster emergence, but for now we're best served by following the philosophical/biological view of emergence...

RDatta said...

First of all, we must examine what we presume that we know. When we see, haar, touch, taste or smell, we are already in a world of epiphenomena; we can attempt to get a handle on the underlying phenomena through the language, structure and concepts of physics (and by extension, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology &c). Even so, we are still operatirg in a world of epiphenomena; difficulties crop up here, such as simultaneous particle and wave behaviour, mutually exclusive position and velocity etc. Such problems are so significant that even Einstein objected, stating that "God does not play dice with the universe". We are unable to cognize the underlying phenomena; our perceptions live in a world of epiphenomena.

That being the case, what we derive from the study of the world will be colored by our biases. For those who are used to a theistic / dualistic world-view, the ideas of a "soul" and a "God" will influence their thinking.

In the non-dualistic view, the Deity described as "The One without a second" in the traditions of Kabbalistic Judaism (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:7) and post-Vedic Hinduism (Sankhara: Crest-Jewel of Discrimination) is all-inclusive, leaving no separation for a second - an individual "soul". It is not a great step from there to the Void (= ain sof in Kabbalistic Judaism, and sunyata in Buddhism). Such views can be expected to lead to different constructs.

The edifices we construct will not be free of our underlying biases.

RDatta said...

P.S. There is an ENORMOUS heirarchy in the human brain, starting witth subatomic particles and going all the way up to the macroscopic organ, by way of molecules, macromolecules, neurotransmitters, receptors, organelles,interconnections, etc.

Jeff Vail said...

Karl sends via email:

My interest in emergence comes from studying Holland and the Santa Fe school, and more recently the systems thinking paradigm pioneered by Jay Forrester and developed into various methods, quantitative and qualitative modeling of macrostructures of causal relations in complex systems to gain insight into emergent behaviors.

It is strange to hear you reduce all that to “computer science”. Not only have I learned useful qualitative methods from those studies, but long before the advent of computers 19th century students of emergent behaviors in their complex societies were using a similar paradigm. For them it was axiomatic that their causes were to be found in the macrostructures of political economy, and not in the separate study of politics and economics, as we tend to do today in the US.

It is also curious to hear you focus first on “downward causality”, although maybe you intend to clarify that abstraction later by providing some examples of what you mean. My understanding is that emergent behaviors arise from macrostructures and can be explained by creating hypothetical models of macrostructures structures of causal relations. To me this is ‘upward causality’, and is of prime importance in understanding emergent behaviors. More details on this view can be found in various papers at

In this view, the world is systemic, but is not useful to see systems in the sense of entities in the real world with concrete boundaries. It is more useful to model a ‘system of interest’ that captures important feedbacks that might explain or provide insights as to the causes of an emergent behavior, and likely scenarios for future trends in that behavior, the world price of oil for example, or the future of suburban sprawl.

I wish you would explain your idea that hierarchical structures like corporations do not appear to exhibit emergence. Unfortunately in my view, professional study of emergent behaviors rarely pays well outside of corporations or the military, extremely hierarchical structures, where it has successfully demonstrated its abilities to assist management, as you are surely aware.

That said, like you I am more interested in the potential of flat structures as you have explored via your rhizome concept. Although I have lived in world capitals, I have also farmed for over thirty years, and was captivated by your use of the Tuscan village network as an example of flat structures. I began farming in the French Pyrenees, where remnants of such flat structures exist, for example in the form of a formal commons that covers a large part of the township, and is managed by the village council. Another example is the irrigation system on which the survival of the villages in the township depends. A committee of the land owners insures its complex management.

Jeff Vail said...

I think Karl's comment is interseting because I read it just after finishing up with the second part in this series (Emergence 2: Strong vs. Weak Emergence). I hope that this new post will help clarify some of the deserved criticisms Karl points out. My intent here was to focus on strong emergence, which, to my understanding, really isn't addressed by the modeling/simulation approach to "weak emergence" taken by computer scientists (or really anyone outside the philosophy of science). I'll also comment to that post (part 2) with what I think is an interesting example of downward causation in strong emergence in social systems: synchronicity.

michael~ said...

Outstanding work Jeff!

I look forward to reading all of your work...


chiinook said...

Fantastic article Jeff. Once again very stimulating reading and clearly an important lead for understanding the value of networked systems.

Your brief foray into theological application was also quite interesting. Part of my draw to the topics you discuss on this blog is that I see in them some faint echoes of Christian theology and wonder if they might be of benefit to the Church.

Among the more interesting connections is the idea of "mutual indwelling" which picks up on language in the Gospel of John describing the perfect community of the Trinity. The idea is that each person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is indwelt by the others so that they are perfectly unified in perfect mutuality. It is suggested that this unity and mutuality - which affirms rather than challenges personal distinctiveness - contributes to the abundance overflowing in acts of creation and reconciliation. One might call this a distinctly Christian theological mechanism for social emergence.

This might offer a different perspective on the problem of downward causation. Synergy between persons in community is not a resulting sum of individual contributions, but the abundant overflow of persons in mutually uplifting community.

I don't think we attain this very well in the church, but we certainly have something to shoot for.