The Nature of Emergence

Continuing the discussion from What are the best philosophical arguments for God?:

I´ll drop the rest of your reply. The discussion has long left the original topic and you have touched on a very interesting issue. However I also think that your example of emergence is inadequate. Not only does it not fit the way it is normally defined, but it also fails to be a case of emergence. And I think I can show why.

This is the only other part I will reply to. If “physicalist” is restricted to the philosophy of mind, then no, it doesn´t exclude God (though it is a strong argument against him). But what I was concerned with in the passage was ontological physicalism, a position entailed by the definition of naturalism from Armstrong. This positively makes the existence of God impossible, since God meaningfully can´t be a physical object in the space-time system, which exhausts reality.
Remember the argument from Quentin Smith that the universe came into existence, because it caused itself to exists internally? This for example is an argument which seeks to prove, that an external cause is impossible. It´s based on the physicalistic-naturalistic picture of nature.

Now to your passages about emergence.

Let´s take three examples of emergence to illustrate:

  1. The rules in the game of chess
  2. The property of wetness after 6 H2O molecules are aggregated
  3. The mind above the brain

In the example of the chess game we have the hardware, the playing field and the figures. I could read you now as thinking that it is an emergent property, since it causally interacts with the game, in the way that it sets the boundaries, while not being reducible to the hardware.
Objection 1: To identify an emergent property, we need to have a closed system. In your example the mind of the players is the origin of the rules imposed upon the hardware, to set the boundaries (rules of the game). If we only focus on the game itself, it is not a case of emergence, since the rules were imposed by an external cause.
We can include the players into the system to avoid this case. This will only change the scenario slightly.
However we can raise an additional Objection 1.1. The problem is, that if we assume the mind to be emergent, the emergence has to be similar to the case of the rules and the game. But here what is called emergent, is merely imposed. So we´d be led to assume that consciousness, as being a comparible case of emergence, is imposed, too. But that can´t be for two reasons. First, we´d be let into a regress where we´d either go on for eternity, leaving consciousness as a brute fact or we´d terminate with a necessary being from which consciousness is derived. But this, my second point, is incompatible with a physicalist understanding of mind and resembles more cartesian dualism.
I won´t press the issue too deep in this comment and will now just assume your scenario being a superficially adequate presentation. But this goes into my reasoning to think that “non-reductive/emergent physicalism” is no less of an oxymoron than a squared circle.
Objection 2: The rules are not reducible to the physics governing the hardware. However if the mind is physical, as you accept, and the rules imposed upon the game come from the minds of the players, then we reach a point where the rules have to be identified with the physical, after we pushed a step back. Modus Ponens:

  1. The mind is physical
  2. The rules are ideas within the mind
  3. Therefor the rules are physical

So after we have taken a step back and looked at the whole scenario, we reach a point at which the rules reduce to the physical constituents, albeit now not in the hardware of the game itself, but in the minds of the players creating it.
Objection 3: The scenario described is a case of derived intentionality, and not of genuine emergence. The problem could be that the terms are not clearly defined but, as with the example of “literal nothing”, is often used differently in different context and thus leads to conceptual confusion. Further more, in recent years it has become a kind of buzz-word, an intelligent way to say “I have no idea” or “Then a miracle happens”. But lets have a look at the definition by Wikipedia:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.

The possiblity of the arising of new properties, after interaction of the parts (Translation from the german page)

Your scenario differs from the example with the appearance of “wetness” after the aggregation of 6 H2O molecules, because the latter has the arising of a new property within its closed system. There is a dependence; it is within the nature of water to be wet after enough molecules are aggregated and the wetness can´t exist/be instantiated without the molecules being aggregated.
The scenario of the game however has no such dependence. There is nothing within the physical constituents/hardware of the game that makes the rules necessary. At the same time the rules could be applied to all kinds of other objects, e.g. a pile of rocks. This indeterminancy of meaning within the physical can be seen if we recognize the different kinds of a chess game. Is this a classic game or Armageddon? Or are we playing something completely different, that we just made up?
If it isn´t totally clear: The fact that the rules aren´t reducible to the parts is only one demand satisfied to count as emergent. But because that the rules and the physical constituents have no intrinsic relationship whatsoever albeit from contingent external restrictions from the player, it refutes your passage

things composed of those parts can make up their own rules having absolutely nothing to do with the laws which govern those parts.

So this is not a case of emergence, but one of imposition. The game is an artifact.
Objection 4: Time for a reductio ad absurdum. I have alredy stated above that there are obvious problems if we should assume that the supposed emergence of your example is comparable with the emergence of the mind. But we can also see that with different examples. In one of our discussions on the topic of intentionality I once gave the example of a hammers ability to hit a nail into the wall. This once again applies here. The physical chess figures and the hammer are both artifacts, they are both created by humans to satisfy a certain demand. In the case of the hammer to hit a nail into the wall, in the case of the figures, to play chess. But if you want to count the chess game as an emergent property of the figures, we´d be forced to count the ability of the hammer to be used to hit a nail into the wall as an emergent property of the hammer.
As another example, the letters I wrote on a paper would become an emergent property of said paper.

I conclude that your example is an inadequate example of emergence and if it should be a vicarious example of how you imagine emergence, then the problems only get bigger, and we haven´t even treated the mental causation or other aspects.

Ideas are not physical, no matter how you define them. Ideas are not made up of physical particles so they are not physical, just as ideas are not physical because they are found in physical books.

Since I affirm the immateriality of the mind, I agree. However if you are a physicalist about the mind, this route isn´t really open to you, especially not if you affirm personal agency. In that case something within the physical has to have the identity of the mental.

Sorry but your argumentation convinces me of nothing but perhaps that my way of thinking does not fit into your system of premises and definitions. I can only repeat that I think the game of chess is an example of emergence. The rules of the oldest games and many other human activities arise much more organically than your claim of imposition. It is more like the laissez-faire rules of an economic system which arise from a combination of logic and tradition (emergence). The point was that they do not reduce to any rules governing component parts. They are like other living systems which make up their own rules and identity rather than simply being derived from either component parts or external forces.

The mind is a physical living organism. Ideas exist as linguistically coded information in the electrochemical data of the human human nervous system. Yes the linguistic encoding means that they can be communicated in all kinds of human media like book and film. But none of this supports the medieval dualistic notion of mind as some supernatural existence. I don’t believe it and I don’t think it agrees with the objective scientific evidence either.

So this puts me between the positions of the two biggest old traditions of dogma:

  1. The dualist religionists who like to use the mind as an example of supernatural existence.
  2. The physicalist naturalists who like to equate the mind to the brain.

I consider BOTH to be incorrect.

  1. The mind is not a supernatural or nonphysical existence. It has been demonstrated that the contents of the mind can altered by physical tampering with the human brain. The whole idea of the mind as a nonphysical puppet master operating the body simply isn’t rationally supportable any more. It needs to be retired along with many of the other ideas from medieval Christianity.
  2. The mind is not the brain. The mind is a living organism in its own right with its own needs and its own inheritance to pass on to the next generation. With both mind and body as different living organisms this produces an effective duality between them even though they are both completely physical entities interacting via physical forces.

Perhaps what you are objecting is that this example of chess isn’t proof that life can emerge without the involvement of a creator. But that was never my intention. I was simply seeking to explain the idea of emergence. The question of abiogenesis and proving how that can happen, is a more complicated question than just emergence, which is a far more general and widespread phenomenon than life or the human mind. Just because you keep stubbornly equating my explanation of the mind with emergence despite my repeated denials doesn’t make this correct.

@DoKo, I would think that life is an emergent phenomenon of complex chemistry and consciousness is an emergent phenomenon arising from the cognitive function of living organisms. Surely the chemistry of living things completely accounts for the phenomenon of life even if we don’t know precisely how to start the process ourselves. If it isn’t the chemistry, what more accounts for our life force? Surely not a spell or enchantment. I don’t think there is much room for maneuver where the emergence of life is concerned as a possible state of material world.

Of course God can’t be a purely physical object anymore than we ourselves can be. But the counterpoint to object-hood isn’t supernaturalism but rather subject-hood. Like we ourselves God too is a subject. Of course our bodies -including our brains- are also objects. But a complete account of our being would be missed if you only listed our component parts and physiological processes. A full account would also have to include a full phenomenological account of what we experience and the meanings and purposes we draw from them.

Now it is a bigger problem for those who insist God must be the creator/cause of everything rather than simply another subject arising from consciousness. I can appreciate your concern given your dedication to having God on the terms suggested by tradition. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

Personally I am not a dualist, but I observe that humans are physical, mental (rational,) and spiritual. The physical self is our body. The mental self is our brain, mind, nervous system. Our spiritual self is our conscious feeling self centered in our endocrine system and our ability to make decisions and appreciate life.

I’m pretty much in agreement, Roger. I’ve always been resistant to the word “spiritual” but I’m coming to think it serves a purpose to differentiate our apprehension and interaction with the ground or depths of our being, as opposed to our simple conscious mental deliberations. In the latter case our action is unilateral and up to us. But when it comes to the spiritual we are interacting with actuality’s that’s are not up to us.

Then be precise. I have argued why I think your idea leads to absurdities. Either say why they don´t, or embrace them, which would make “emergence” a meaningless concept.

Not important. If you want to point to the evolution of games within the human history, be my guest, but don´t fall for the illusion, that this has anything to do with the question at hand. In order to be emergent, the game would have arisen simply by having the figures, without the need for players to invent the rules. t´s clear that this is nonsense.

The economic system is reducible to the psychology of the humans participating. It also has no causal power which it didn´t derive by the humans which made up the trade rules and the deals. As such it is not so much an example of a genuine emergence, but a weaker version, like the sum of corns making up a pile. Thus it is not a comparable case where a whole new property arises.

Yes, something like a form, where the properties are “stored” within a form rather than the material components. However contrary to the form of water, the chess game has no form of its own which is independend of the human mind.

Now to the rest:

We need an interpreter of those. We could say that these are mechanistic and thereby making this idea coherent, but we dropped intrinsic intentionality in the process. In one of our last discussions you have been unaware of the problems that poses for the physicalist position. Luckily though, Philosophers of mind haven´t. So I will repeat that here, since we have the space now.
Ideas have a specific mark of the mental: They posses intentionality, they are about something. The idea I have about the game, really is about it. That may seem tautological, but it makes an important point, namely that the statements contained within the idea are meaningfully determined. It should be obvious, that the material possesses no such quality, it can, as a matter of teleology/physical intentionality be directed towards something (though not in a mechanistic worldview) by the virtue of its own nature, like a heart being directed towards pumping blood or a positive charge being attracted to a negative charge, but both examples aren´t about pumping blood or attracting negative charges, contrary to the idea of the heart pumping or the charge attracting. One could say that in this example the idea amounts to a statement about the essence or intrinsic nature of those objects. So there is a meaningful distinction.
Now the question arises how that could meaningfully be identical to the material in the nervous system. What is it that makes the “linguistically coded information” meaningful? I can´t say that they get interpreted by the receptors or the signal-cascade it causes, since that is a classical example of the homunculus-fallacy. Just saying “the mind does it” is question-begging, since you identify the mind with the physical. Pointing to intrinsic dynamics is at best a sleight of hand and doesn´t answer the question.
So try to describe how that is possible. I don´t think that it will be hard to shoot it down.

It is clear that you are not well-read within the medieval philosophy. If you were, you would know that your describtion is a misrepresentation of how the scholastics though about the mind-body-relationship and the soul. The idea of the mind as supernatural has only really arisen after Descartes and his definition of the physical as a purely quantifiable domainm which brought the artificial mind-body-problem into existence.
And if you point to the scientific evidence, you better bring something good to the table. Correlation between brain states and states of mind for example are unproblematic for every dualist.

Oh no, you do exactly that. Well since you have a particularly weak strawman in mind when you talk about dualism, then really it is no wonder that you reject it with such a passion. Why do you read the cartesian distinction back into the medieval? The idea of the “ghost in the machine” came after the moderns and have nothing to do with the scholastics picture of the soul. (Further more, even a cartesian dualist isn´t surprised by Phineas Gage (e.g. Swinburne)). You claim to have read Aristotle. Did you really read him as advocating something like that? He was certainly not a physicalist.
What is your literature on this topic? Really, I want to know! Which dualist advocated their position this way? Plotinus work is over 1800 years old, Augustines over 1600. Nowhere in their work would you find anything like what you ascribe to them. Neither will you find it in Scotus, Aquinas (followers of Aristotle were dualists ín an analogical sense), Descartes or, to take the contemporary ones, Pruss, Moreland, Rasmussen or Plantinga.
Your describtion of the 1. of the two biggest old traditions of dogma therefor fails, due to a deep misunderstanding of dualism.

I can´t make sense of this. It is clear that you are advocating some kind of meme theory. But the way your are formulating it, “mind is a living organism”, “mind is not the brain” and “mind and body[…]completely physical entities interacting via physical forces” would make mind a physical entity to which we could attributes like weight, size and shape. And your formulation reads like we really should look out for something like ectoplasm.
But I think I start to understand why you take that position; you have a strawman picture of dualism in mind, therefor it can´t be correct, since the dualism you think of is rationally indefensible. But the mind possesses attributes which can´t be found in the brain or rather directly identified with one of its state, so it isn´t identical, but it has to be physical, since it interacts with it.

Nonsense. I never made any such demand. I was objecting to utter conceptual confusion. And the fact that you put chess on the same level as abiogenesis proves as much. I hope you are not suggesting that chess arose on its own; it is an artifact, something created by humans. Life on the other hand can arise on its own. Why you think that self-organization is such a scary concept to me is not understandable. Aristotle for example also didn´t take the teleology of an object to be in direct reference to God and although I affirm Aquinas´ fifth way, I freely admit that additional premises are required. The existence of teleology/self-organization by itself is not direct evidence of the involvement of the creator. I´m not fond of ID.

I have nothing against abiogenesis per se, in an equal way as I have nothing against evolution. What I am objecting to is a quantifiable structure in the former and neo-darwinian concepts in the latter as respectively exhaustive. I´m always concerned with the metaphysical aspects involved. And it is clear that new properties arise once participants from the different levels of ontology get instantiated. A rock, a sunflower, a cat and a human. These properties, prior to the instantiation in the individual weren´t nonexistent, but had a certain ontological status.
And you have explained nothing about the nature of emergence. I have given several objections as to why your example was inadequate. I have also given two quotes in regards to the definition of emergence. It should be clear why I think they are completely incompatible with your example of chess. Your response was hand-waving. Emergence in life, mind or simple chemical objects like protein are very different, this much is clear, but what they have in common is that new properties arise from the material participating in a certain structure. Metaphysically, I claim that this is accounted for by formal causality. Adding, when it comes to life, abiogenesis as the epistemic solution as to how the mechanistic aspects work, is unproblematic.

Denial of what exactly? That the minds emergence from the brain? This has got to be a joke, your quote is in the opening post:

And if the terms you are using are supposed to have any meaning, of course they have to be compared and applied in different occasions. I don´t need an interchangeably fitting account for every occasion, like I said, I agree that the emergence in different areas have different aspects to them. But metaphysically, the basics have to be universal. And the supposed emergence you find in the chess game is not applicable to the other cases. Not because of the specifics, but because the basics are wong.

Let’s consider another example of emergence.

One you find in the wikipedia article is snowflakes. To be sure the patterns made is very constrained by the nature of chemical bonds in the water molecule. But this doesn’t determine all of the aspects of shape in the ice crystals. There are some arbitrary choices involved. This is an example of the emergence because the shapes are not completely determined by the component parts. This also demonstrates another principle of emergence in that it arises from what the component parts do and the relationships they form rather than simply what they are. It is emergence because these actions and relationships are not completely determined by the natural laws which govern the parts themselves. Nevertheless by their actions and relationship they can set up a system of rules which governs subsequent actions quite apart from the laws which govern them individually.

As for the game of chess, you can think of it as a metaphor if you like. But frankly I think the necessity arises only because of the your insisting on fitting this with a very rigid system of thought (premises and definitions). For me it is still an example of emergence because it is just another example of patterns of behavior which do not follow from the laws governing the component parts of either the chess pieces or the players. (shrug) I am certainly not going to change my thinking to fit yours – no thank you.

Yes, accounted for in your Aristotelian scholastic system of philosophy. But accounted for in science? Don’t make me laugh! No scientist has have ever measured any “formal causality.” Therefore the scientific view explains it differently and yes I think I personally would link this with Aristotle’s idea of formal causality but unlike you, that label does not constitute an explanation as far as I am concerned.

The joke is all yours and it would be the same joke which claims that mice arise from garbage heaps.

No the mind does not arise from the brain any more than mosquitoes arise from standing water or mice from heaps of garbage. These are simply right conditions for certain living organisms to grow and thrive but from what they actually form is an inheritance. For the mice and mosquitoes this inheritance is encoded in DNA and for the human mind this inheritance is encoded in language. Change the information in this inheritance and you change the result… like the difference in the DNA of the mosquito and the mouse.

And I will no doubt insist that you have explained nothing about the nature of emergence either. This another example of scientist and philosopher talking past each other. You say “formal causality” and eureka all is explained! I can at least appreciate the connection but in science that is balderdash, for it explains absolutely NOTHING! The scientific explanation is that things emerge because what the component parts do in relationships is not completely determined by the laws which govern their behavior individually, and they can set up systems of rules for behavior in relationships quite apart from the laws which govern them individually.

Weight, size and shape are measurements which do not apply to all physical entities. It does not apply to an electric current. In that case, we use measurement like current and voltage. Heat is another example of something which we do not measure weight, size, or shape. Just because something does not have weight, size, or shape does not mean it is non-physical – not in the modern scientific usage of the word “physical” anyway. You seem to be getting hung up on another usage of the word as bodily as opposed to mental – in which case it is no wonder none of this makes any sense to you.

Mark, thank you for sharing. We do need to take the spiritual seriously.

If you are interested, my thinking on the body, mind, and spirit is found in my essay, Using The One And The Many to Reconcile Theology, Philosophy, and Science on

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