Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?


Emergence was popular in philosophy of science more than a century ago. Reputable figures such as John Stuart Mill, Henri Bergson and C D Broad suggested that chemistry and biology would struggle to account for the origins of life; perhaps life could only be said to ‘emerge’ from these domains, demanding its own special laws and explanations. Beginning in the 1930s, though, advances in quantum chemistry and the discovery of the structure of DNA and RNA showed the potential of atomistic approaches. Soon enough, a cloud of suspicion formed over emergence and its scientific potential.

Nowadays, the concept is often invoked by quantum mystics, believers in souls, and advocates of the inscrutable nature of consciousness. These are the fuzzy approaches to emergence, and we should avoid them. But emergence shouldn’t be judged on the basis of its dubious friends. Long disdained, emergence can still be a valuable addition to our ways of understanding the world. The trick is to capture what is interesting about emergence without lapsing into an attitude of awed mysticism.

I have long been attracted to this idea. It has a powerful explanatory​ narrative that addresses​ multiple​ of metaphysical and epistemological​ gaps.