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In Some Science Contexts, “Emergence” Really Means “We Don’t Know How”

Photo: Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum, a peace lily, by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

For some purposes, “emergence” is just another word in the dictionary. For example, “caterpillar emergence (emphasis added) means just that: Caterpillars exiting their eggs.

But there is a sneakier way the word is sometimes used in science contexts: It’s a way of pretending we know something we don’t or that something can happen in a certain way — but we have no evidence for that.

Consider Three Illustrations


Abiotic emergence of ordered information stored in the form of RNA is an important unresolved problem concerning the origin of life.

Totani, T. Emergence of life in an inflationary universe. Sci Rep 10, 1671 (2020).

When used with respect to the origin of life, emergence is intended to convey the idea that life simply started to form without any intelligence in the universe directing it. The author is willing to admit that this is “an important unresolved problem” but the word “emergence” encourages us to think of it as like the caterpillar bursting out of the egg — forgetting that, in this case, the origin of the egg and other life forms is precisely what we wish to account for.

The study of human evolution has become particularly focussed on the emergence of language and human consciousness with respect to the social behaviour and mental capacities of our closest relatives: the apes.

Jonker, A. The origin of the human mind a speculation on the emergence of language and human consciousness. Acta Biotheor 36, 129–177 (1987).

In this example, “emergence” encourages us to consider the gradual origin of human language and consciousness from the social and mental capacities of apes as both plausible and scientific. It fuzzes over the fact that we have no idea how these things emerged and enables speculation to sound like a sort of fact.

And the third illustration?

Meanwhile, the categorization of types of religion (e.g., as polytheism, henotheism, or other) continued to stimulate attempts at a deeper understanding of the emergence of monotheism.

Ninian Smart, The Editors of Encyclopedia Britanica, “History of the study of religion” – Britannica

Emergence here subtly encourages us to adopt biological evolutionary theory as a model for understanding monotheism. That is, we are not supposed to see monotheism as an initiative from the outside, suddenly appearing, as in: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.’” (Genesis17:1) The choice of emergence is not a question of evidence but of what is permitted to count as an explanation.

In that sense, emergence permits the improbable to be considered probable for the purposes of sounding like science without providing any actual science.

These types of uses of the word and the underlying concepts that enable them have attracted criticism from varying perspectives. Here are two:

“Emergence” Is a Prayer Trying to Be an Explanation

Yervant Kulbashian, who leads an applied AI team at a robotics company, doesn’t like the term, especially as applied to artificial intelligence:

Emergence can only be ascribed to a phenomenon in retrospect, once you already know what has “emerged”. The higher-level properties that emerge are qualitatively different from those at the lower-level — otherwise it wouldn’t be “emergence”. So by necessity they could not have been predicted from the lower-level ones. The properties of “intelligence” could not have been logically foreseen from the properties of neurons unless you had already observed that property emerge in a similar substrate. And even then it’s just a guess that is likely to be wrong given the complexity of the interactions involved; small differences can easily invalidate the hypothesis. In both cases emergence gives no new information: when explaining existing examples it gives you no new insights about the processes except that they happen; and when predicting unknown behaviours it gives very poor guarantees that anything you expect to happen will do so.

Emergence is only really valid as a general metaphysical classification of certain phenomena. It’s a metaphysical category, like “cause”, “effect” or “change”. Using the word when explaining cognition is not wrong per se, it just has no real meaning or explanatory force. It’s like having a theory of “thing-happened-ness” — it’s correct, but void of content.

Y. Kulbashian, “Emergence” isn’t an explanation, it’s a prayer,” Medium, July 15, 2023 

He adds that the term is used in AI development “whenever someone encounters a phenomenon in the human mind and has no idea how to even start explaining it (e.g. art, socialization, empathy, transcendental aesthetics, DnD, etc).”

But Isn’t Promissory Materialism Owed Another Hurrah?

Derek Cabrera, a prominent systems scientist, thinks on the other hand that the concept of emergence is abused in science and philosophy because everything we encounter can be reduced to simple, material explanations:

Emergence has nothing to do with the whole being more than its parts. Instead, it calls our attention to behavioural outcomes that reveal themselves at the level of the whole rather than at the level of the parts, but this is not the same as the creation of an inequality of wholes and parts. Don’t fall prey to the lure of mystical interpretations, fanciful explanations, or hand-waving. Instead, see emergence for what it truly is — the system’s behaviour emerging from the interactions of its constituent elements.

Derek Cabrera, “The absurdity of emergence,” IAI.TV, July 26, 2023. 

No. That ship sailed a long time ago. For example, the people who talk about the emergence of human consciousness and language would be only too happy to show how they arose from ape behavior. Trouble is, they can’t. “Emergence” is a way around admitting a reality that mocks their devoutly held promissory materialism.

Promissory materialism is the future facts that must turn out to be the case if materialism is true. We should, on that view, find materialist explanations for the origin of life, mind, and religion any day now. No day that we recognize that we can’t do so can even be contemplated. 

And that is where emergence stands bravely in the gap.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.