Dispelling emergent confusion

NOTE HXA7241 2017-12-17T10:55Z

Emergence/self-organisation/spontaneous-order conjures up a mist of confused magic. But all it can mean is to classify systems by special kinds of input and output – multiple parts/steps producing complex patterns.


The vague, casual notion of emergence seems to propose that structure can come from nowhere: there can be nothing in the pieces, guiding the pieces, but when they meet together the structure appears. Does this make sense? That is what needs to be puzzled out.


To this one should ask: is it predictable? Is a particular kind of emergence predictable?

If the reply is yes, then there must be some single pattern/concept that is recognisable across all the pieces, and so inevitably some single common objective ‘something’ in the pieces themselves (otherwise you are merely hallucinating – how would you find it in the same place tomorrow?). But then it is not emergence after all, but shaped, prefigured, driven, by that ‘seed’, that precondition.

If the reply is no it is not predictable, then what use is this idea of emergence? What does it do? It has no value in application: the phenomena must always appear to us as random, and any rationale of ‘emergence’ is ad-hoc and post-hoc. It is an illusion, a mystification – the word ‘emergence’ poses as knowledge, but when you try it, it can do nothing. It has no tangible meaning.

Either emergence is predictive knowledge or merely a fancy placeholder for knowledge we lack.


Or consider: is a ballistic trajectory emergent? Is that structure in the ball, or the throw, or gravity? No. It seems just the same as emergent. Is not all lawful physical behaviour emergent then? Otherwise, what distinguishes it? All laws reflect the main pattern, yet omit details; all laws capture something, but leave something out.

Emergence proposes that bringing things together, assembling, creates more than the pieces themselves. But try imagining the opposite: what could ‘assembly’ possibly mean if it did not do that? So emergence is just assembly – all assembly is emergent. In asserting that no mere summing of parts can produce order, one is implicitly positing a falsely weak, meaningless, notion of summing.

And is not the mere existence of such ‘emergent’ structure its own disproof? If there is nothing in the parts that yields the whole, then how does the whole exist? The parts actually, physically, are giving rise to the whole! If a reply is that it is not causation here, but ‘emergence’ that induces the larger form, what is added by this renaming? It is a mere dresciutario, a distinction without difference.


The common idea of emergence, almost betrayed in the terms ‘self-organization’ or ‘spontaneous-order’, wants to have it both ways. It wants to be both organised, and not, both knowable, and not. But that does not make sense. It is true enough that at root we must concede that physical law, the universe, has some unfathomable regularity, patternedness, that is beyond causation and inexplicable but manifest, but in any narrower, particular case, we either understand it or not.

And if we compromise on the meaning of emergence as signifying only partial understanding, then it just as well describes all laws, all knowledge. … So first it was contradictory and demarcated no cases, then it was tautological and covered all.

The only sensible meanings of ‘emergence’ to be found are for it to denote phenomena or systems with multiple similar parts, and/or extended iteration, or that what is produced is a particular kind or complexity of pattern. It is then predictive knowledge, and distinguishes cases – answering the earlier problems. That is OK, but it seems not to warrant the thaumaturgical investiture of the name ‘emergence’.