Saturday, June 17, 2017


320. Emergence

Reductionism is a form of scientism: the idea that natural science is the only respectable form of knowledge, on the basis of experimental facts and rigorous, preferably mathematically formalised argument. Reductionism is analytical: it decomposes phenomena into fundamental elements that together explain the whole.  

The opposition claims that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’. In the formation of the whole something is added that cannot be found in the parts. That is called emergence. Aristotle already talked about it.  

Emergence is akin to self-organization. That arises in nature, as in evolution, where forms do not arise from ‘intelligent design’, but from random trials that are selected out when they do not function well enough to survive and replicate.

More generally, in emergence elements have a potential to unfold properties, in interaction with each other, and develop collective properties, depending on the environment.  

The fundamental theoretical argument for the novelty that is added in synthesis is the following. The whole, be it an organ, an organism, a brain, a sentence, an organization, a market, or a society, must achieve some coherent functioning to survive in its environment, which determines what works and what does not, and it must incorporate the conditions for it. As a consequence, not everything comes ‘from inside’, from the components, but also from outside, the functional conditions for survival. In that, the whole reflects the external conditions, which did not lie in the parts.  

Emergence arises widely in nature and society, on many levels. Chemistry arises from physics, biology from chemistry, evolution from genes, consciousness from neurons, organizations from people, markets from firms, consumers and institutions, societies from people, communities, culture, language and institutions.

In language, the meaning of a sentence depends on the meanings of words in it, but also, the other way around, word meaning also depends on sentence meaning. Earlier in this blog, I used the hermeneutic circle to analyse this (items 36, 252 in this blog). Concepts are embedded in sentences, where they obtain one of several potential meanings, but in the action context they can also acquire a new meaning, which shifts the concept. Here, the outside selection lies in the language community, and in what Wittgenstein called language games.

Meanings and ideas arise from action in the world. I proposed (in item 29) that this yields an object bias in our conceptualization of abstract notions as if they are like things moving in time and space, and in terms of ‘what you can do with them’ (affordances). That also connects with the idea from pragmatist philosophy that truth can be seen as ‘what works’.

Relationships are emergent. If individuals develop their perception and ideas, and their judgements, in interaction with their physical and social environment, then the course of  relationship is fundamentally uncertain. That means that it is not known beforehand what can happen. One may have expectations about what people may do, but one is regularly caught by surprise. One cannot even reliably predict one’s own responses.

In groups, social constellations, complexity increases further, in on he ne hand mimicry of conduct and on the other hand rivalry and rebellion, in agreement or conflict. As discussed elsewhere in this blog (item 205), it looks like people have both an instinct for survival, by protecting their interests, and an instinct for altruism, at least within one’s own group, where one is prepared to make sacrifices at the cost of self-interest, in what is called ‘parochial altruism’.

Organizations and institutions can lead to what I have called ‘system tragedy’ (items 109, 159, 187 in this blog). The culture of an organization, the (international) markets in which it finds itself, and the public institutions of laws and regulations, form expectations, positions, roles, interests, and entanglements between them, which routinely yield outcomes that were not expected or intended, and where guilt cannot easily be attributed to single individuals, who often could not, or did not dare to act otherwise, given their positions. An example is that of ‘the banks’.

History is even more complex. It anything is unpredictable it is that. Look at what has happened in just one year, with the rise of populism, the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise, apparently out of nowhere, of Emmanuel Macron. With each of those one would have been declared a lunatic if one had predicted it. Where does that complexity come from?

In an earlier item in this blog (item 100), concerning the nature of causality, I analysed the emergence of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) in the 16th-17th century, as a mix of causal factors of different kinds: accidental conditions of climate and geography, entrepreneurial action, eclipse of competitors, technological and organizational innovations, in more or less accidental ‘novel combinations’, and conditions of war. If any of those factors had been different, or occurred at another moment, nothing or something entirely different might have occurred.